Resilient Lula leads the pack in Brazil

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 17, 2017


Sixteen months before Brazilians head to the polls to elect a new leader and new Congress, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2002-2010) leads the pack of presidential hopefuls. Though he might be barred from running for office, if he is found guilty in the Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal, Lula remains the most popular politician in a country where almost everyone in the political class is under suspicion.


A year after Michel Temer became president of Brazil, the country seems to be finally coming out of a prolonged recession. Though the recovery has taken longer than most people hoped for — and the legislative reforms Temer promised to implement have not all materialised — the sense of pessimism that overtook Brazil under former president Dilma Rousseff’s second term has been replaced by cautious optimism. The economy is growing again, inflation is on the decline and the Central Bank has more leeway to cut interest rates to further stimulate growth. Despite having single-digit approval ratings, President Temer has succeeded in turning the economy around. After being on freefall since the crisis hit in 2013, the Brazilian economy is slowly but decisively moving back onto the right track.


Yet, the reach of the Car Wash corruption scandal continues to grow. Almost a third of sitting senators and dozens of lawmakers are being investigated. Since Rousseff was permanently removed from office in August 2016, several ministers of Temer’s Cabinet have had to resign as they have been implicated in illegal campaign contributions and kickback schemes involving the Odebrecht and OAS construction companies. The ongoing investigations, judicial proceedings and new revelations of improprieties have dominated the news cycle to the point that many Brazilians stopped paying attention. After the disappointment and rage caused by the revelations of wrongdoing on the part of politicians from all sectors, many Brazilians have concluded that all politicians are corrupt.


Yet, since someone has to run the government, Brazilians seem to be inclined toward settling on choosing the least repulsive fruit from among a rotten basket. Lula, who presided over a period of rapid economic growth, social inclusion and poverty reduction — caused by favourable terms of trade for Brazilian exports but also by the market-friendly economic reforms that the former president championed — is still considered by many Brazilians as the most capable candidate to lead the country in the coming years. Though there is compelling evidence that implicates Lula in the illegal campaign contributions and kickbacks, the former president is also remembered as the leader who distributed the benefits of economic growth among millions of formerly excluded Brazilians. The dominant logic seems to be that, given that all politicians are corrupt, people should choose those who make sure that wealth is distributed.

Leader of the pack


In a Datafolha poll from late April, Lula led the pack of presidential hopefuls with 30 percent of vote intentions. Though the former president has been a daily feature in the news in recent weeks, as depositions in his trial are under way, Lula continues to command a level of support that makes him the strongest contender for the presidential elections to be held in October, 2018. Lula’s surprising resilience contrasts with the unpopularity of President Temer, former president Rousseff — a member of the Workers’ Party (PT), like Lula — and former presidential contender Aécio Neves. All other potential presidential candidates are either newcomers on the political scene — like the recently elected mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, a centrist businessman and former television personality — or leaders who have long been considered outsiders in the political establishment, like former left-wing presidential candidate Marina Silva or the right-wing legislator and retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro. By virtue of having entered politics recently, or having stayed out of the mainstream, Doria, Marina Silva and Bolsonaro have avoided being implicated in the corruption scandals. Yet, in a one-on-one contest and hypothetical runoff, Lula would still defeat each one of them.


Lula’s appeal can be explained through a combination of factors. The memories of his successful eight-year term certainly play a role. At 71 years of age, Lula remains a highly charismatic leader. His inspirational life story that took him from extreme poverty in his childhood, through a life of hard work as a metal worker and labor union leader, fighting to restore democracy in Brazil and running three times for the presidency before being elected in 2002, is a powerful electoral asset. In fact, many believe that the only obstacle ahead for Lula is a possible judicial ruling that bans him from running. It is unclear if the judges in charge of the case will make such a politically sensitive decision. Even if they believe Lula is guilty, the Judiciary will be pressed hard to let Brazilian voters have the final word. In a country where people believe that the entire political class is corrupt, judges will probably not want to be perceived as meddling in an election by disqualifying the most popular politician from the next presidential race.