With a stroke of the pen on Monday, a Brazilian judge has quashed not only the criminal convictions of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but also most of the assumptions about hard-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s chances in next year’s presidential election.
In a decision for which the adjective “surprise” seems barely adequate, Luiz Edson Fachin, Supreme Court judge, ruled that the provincial court in Southern Brazil that convicted and imprisoned the leftist icon for corruption in 2017 had no jurisdiction to rule the case. to treat.
The shock waves of the decision were immense: Lula’s fate has polarized Latin America’s greatest nation for years, leaving leftists who idolized him for his generous welfare policies bitterly divided among those on the right who saw him and his workers’ party, or PT, as the epitome of mismanagement and corruption.
Never mind that the issue of the court’s jurisdiction was decided four years after the case was heard and the verdict was decided: if the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, Lula is free to run next year’s presidential election against Bolsonaro. to fight. The corruption cases against him should start over at a new court.
“This shows that anything can happen in Brazil,” said Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “It is strongly influenced by political trends, it is mainly a sign that the political wind is changing at the moment, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with Bolsonaro.”
The president was quick to dismiss the risk of a challenge from his 75-year-old socialist rival, who was released in early 2019 after ruling that he could be released from prison while an appeal was pending. “I believe that in 2022 the Brazilian people do not even want to have such a candidate, let alone possibly elect him,” said Bolsonaro.
Not all opinion polls agree. An IPEC poll published Sunday by the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, ahead of the judge’s decision, showed that 50 percent of people would definitely or likely vote for Lula and 38 percent for Bolsonaro.
That investigation confirmed what Brazilians had long suspected: Even a decade after the two-term leader left the presidency, no other opposition candidate comes close to the electoral magnetism of Lula, a politician once described by Barack Obama as “the man.” “.
Ominously to Bolsonaro, Arthur Lira, the powerful leader of the House of Commons, who was elected with his support only last month, tweeted shortly after saying that Lula “even deserves” to be acquitted.
That verdict is more selfish than anything else: Lula’s conviction was part of the massive ‘Car Wash’ scandal, in which dozens of Brazilian politicians and businessmen were entangled in corruption investigations reminiscent of Italy’s ‘Clean Hands’ affair in the United States. the nineties. Brazilian politicians have always hated the “Car Wash” investigation and made no secret of their joy when the task force that led it was disbanded last month.
Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute in Washington, said she thought the startling verdict that overturned Lula’s convictions would likely hold up, not least because Bolsonaro had made so many enemies to the judiciary with his continued attacks on judges. “What I see happening is a reckoning with the fact that Bolsonaro is a huge threat to institutional stability,” she said. So the calculation is, “What is the least destabilizing?”
The financial markets had no doubts about the threat that a reviving Lula could pose: stocks fell 4 percent and the real fell close to its trough against the dollar.
Investors’ concerns reflected not only the risk of a Lula victory, but also concerns that Bolsonaro, faced with an electoral challenge from his longtime nemesis, would give up any remaining pretense of market-friendly reforms and lean towards even more of the expensive populist giveaways than he has so far approved, putting further strains on the country’s financial situation.
But even if Lula does manage to remove any remaining legal obstacles to another presidential run, it remains unclear whether he will succeed in defeating a hard-right leader who has defied critics’ predictions multiple times.
“The question is how many people in Brazil who are too young to remember Lula will respond,” said Stuenkel. “Then there’s the theory that this secures Bolsonaro’s reelection, because from a strategic standpoint it’s much more comfortable for him to run against the PT than someone from the center.”