The annulment of ex-president Lula’s conviction is a turning point in Brazil’s 2022 elections

The possibility of Lula running for office in 2022 has already nudged Bolsonaro to change course. Yet, write Larissa Peixoto Gomes and Fernanda Barasuol, although Lula’s candidacy is likely, it is not guaranteed

Lula: born to run

Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.

Max Weber, Politics as Vocation, 1919

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva grew up poor. He worked in a factory, and rose through the ranks of his labour union to become one of the world's most recognisable politicians. Lula served as president of Brazil from 2003–2011.

Imagine we went back to 1919 and told Max Weber Lula's story. It’s quite possible he’d go 'yes, that’s what I meant'. In practice, we could just show him Lula’s speech from 10 March 2021, the day after the sentences against him were nullified. Lula spoke, eloquently, of the nearly 300,000 deaths caused by the current administration's pandemic mismanagement, comparing it with a time when Brazil had a national project.

Conviction and release

On 7 April 2018, Lula began a jail sentence. He was convicted of money laundering, and of receiving, through a bribe, a remodelled apartment in Guarujá, São Paulo. Lula’s defence showed that he had never actually owned the apartment, although he had considered buying one.

Whatever the prosecution claimed, it was clear it had always wanted to imprison Lula. Its ultimate goal was to remove Lula as a political operative and presidential candidate. The judge, Sérgio Moro, behaved unethically during Lula's trial, illegally divulging wiretaps. He went on to become Jair Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice. Conversations released by The Intercept show that Moro and the prosecution colluded throughout the evidence gathering and then through Lula's trial.

Whatever the prosecution claimed, its goal was to remove Lula as a political operative and presidential candidate

580 days into his sentence, Lula was free. He could await the outcome of his next appeal in freedom. But on 8 March 2021, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin ruled that the case against Lula had been argued in the wrong court. He nullified the case and now it is likely to reopen in Brasília.

The Lula effect

The nullification of Lula’s sentence rearranges all the pieces on the board of Brazilian politics. Bolsonaro, who had no real contenders, now fears the 2022 election.

Many aspiring presidential candidates are watching their chances dwindle. São Paulo governor João Dória (PSDB) was elected on the heels of bolsonarismo, only to become its biggest rival during the pandemic. Ciro Gomes (PDT) has, for many electoral cycles, tried and failed to unite the left behind him. He is furious at the possibility of once again losing the spotlight to Lula. Luciano Huck is a TV presenter and aspiring presidential candidate with zero political experience. He now feels threatened, and complains about the lack of new figures in politics.

Misplaced loyalty

Huck is right about one thing. The Workers’ Party (PT) made little effort to create new leadership that could eventually take up Lula’s position. Without investing in others, the PT set itself up to be Lula’s party. When Lula's imprisonment became likely, the PT should have focused on supporting Fernando Haddad, the former São Paulo mayor who ended up presidential candidate in 2018. Instead, they waited until the last minute because, as polls still show, Lula’s approval ratings, and the likelihood of people voting for him, went through the roof – and are still there now.

The most recent poll shows Lula in first place for the first round – and winning the run-off against Bolsonaro. Right-wing politicians, including former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, are throwing their support behind Lula. Rodrigo Maia (DEM) is the most recent former Chamber of Deputies Speaker, who has spent the entire pandemic fighting with Bolsonaro. He wrote a series of tweets lauding Lula – unthinkable until a few months ago. While his sentiment may fade as quickly as it arrived, the tweets still struck a surprise note.

The international Lula effect

Bolsonaro has spent months questioning vaccine efficacy, defending unproven treatments, and refusing to implement a national vaccination plan. A nudge from Lula, and Bolsonaro changed course. On 10 March, the president released his Vaccine Plan. Bolsonaro's plan went beyond practical measures, to a change in rhetoric and a PR campaign.

Bolsonaro may be on the far right of the political spectrum. But Lula’s policies during his two terms were not the radical leftist agenda many expected

Markets, however, had a negative reaction, with the Brazilian stock market and the Real showing a downturn. Analysts say this reflects a fear of polarisation between Lula and Bolsonaro. It's also a fear of Bolsonaro implementing 'populist' policies, abandoning market-friendly reforms and privatisation plans. It's worth noting, however, that the Brazilian currency has depreciated steadily since 2020.

Bolsonaro’s pro-gun, sexist, homophobic, anti-human rights stances should be enough to place him on the far right of the political spectrum. But Lula’s policies during his two terms were not the radical leftist agenda that many expected (and others hoped for). Riding the wave of a commodities boom, Lula implemented popular income transfer programmes. He also put an end to previous administrations' privatisation plans, but was otherwise a market-friendly president.

Empowering Brazil on the world stage

Internationally, Lula’s defence of allies like Chavez and Castro sometimes attracted criticism. But he made similar moves towards more market- and US-friendly dictators such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia. These moves were in line with the Brazilian policy of not intervening in the internal politics of other nations.

Brazilian economic growth, active diplomacy, and positive roles in combatting climate change, negotiating for nations in conflict, and upholding human rights made the country a popular partner. Lula has always got along well with other world leaders, from the right to the left. A new Lula presidency might mean a more empowered Brazil on the world stage.

Lula's story has many, many legal pathways yet to take. Although he enjoys strong support, Lula as a presidential candidate is a likely, but not guaranteed, scenario.

This is Brazil. With a year and a half to go before the elections, literally anything can happen.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Larissa Peixoto Gomes Larissa Peixoto Gomes Research officer, Wales Centre for Public Policy – Cardiff University More by this author
photograph of Fernanda Barasuol Fernanda Barasuol Independent Researcher More by this author

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