At the stroke of a pen on Monday, a Brazilian judge has overturned not just former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s criminal convictions but most of the assumptions about the chances of hard-right President Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election.
In a decision for which the adjective “surprise” hardly seems adequate, Supreme Court justice Luiz Edson Fachin ruled that the provincial court in southern Brazil which had convicted and imprisoned the leftwing icon on corruption charges in 2017 had no jurisdiction to try the case.
The shockwaves from the decision were immense: Lula’s fate has polarised Latin America’s biggest nation for years, bitterly dividing left-wingers who idolised him for his generous welfare policies from those on the right, who saw him and his Workers’ party, or PT, as the embodiment of mismanagement and corruption.
No matter that the question of the court’s jurisdiction was decided four years after the case was heard and sentence passed: if the full supreme court confirms the ruling, Lula will be free to contest next year’s presidential election against Bolsonaro. The corruption cases against him would have to start again from scratch in a new court.
“This shows that anything can happen in Brazil,” commented Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “It’s very much influenced by political trends, it’s a sign above all that the political winds are changing right now, there’s a lot of discontent with Bolsonaro.”
The president was quick to dismiss the risk of a challenge from his 75-year-old socialist rival, who was freed early in 2019 after a ruling that he could be released from jail while appeals were considered. “I believe that the Brazilian people don’t even want to have a candidate like this in 2022, much less think of possibly electing him,” Bolsonaro said.
Not all the opinion polls agree. An Ipec poll published on Sunday by the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, before the judge’s decision, showed that 50 per cent of people would definitely or probably vote for Lula against 38 per cent for Bolsonaro.
That survey confirmed what Brazilians have long suspected: that 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 for Bolsonaro, Arthur Lira, the powerful leader of the lower house of congress elected only last month with his support, tweeted soon after the ruling that Lula could “even deserve” to be absolved.
That verdict is more self-serving than anything else: Lula’s conviction was part of the huge “Car Wash” scandal, in which scores of Brazilian politicians and businesspeople were snared in corruption investigations reminiscent of Italy’s “Clean Hands” affair in the 1990s. Brazil’s venal politicians have always detested the “Car Wash” investigation and made no secret of their glee when the task force leading it was disbanded last month.
Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute in Washington, said she thought the surprise ruling quashing Lula’s convictions was likely to stand, not least because Bolsonaro had made so many enemies among the judiciary with his constant attacks on judges. “What I see happening is a reckoning with the fact that Bolsonaro is a massive threat to institutional stability,” she said. “The calculation thus is: ‘What is least destabilising?’”
Financial markets were in little doubt about the threat a resurgent Lula might pose: stocks fell 4 per cent and the real slipped close to its record lows against the dollar.
Investors’ worries reflected not only the risk of a Lula victory but also the concern that, faced with an electoral challenge from his old nemesis, Bolsonaro would abandon any remaining pretence at market-friendly reforms and lean towards even more of the expensive populist giveaways than he has approved so far, straining the country’s dire finances further.
But even if Lula succeeds in clearing away any remaining legal obstacles to another presidential run, it remains unclear whether he will succeed in defeating a hard-right leader who has already defied critics’ predictions on multiple occasions.
“The question is how a lot of people in Brazil who are too young to remember Lula will react,” said Stuenkel. “Then there is the theory that this assures Bolsonaro’s re-election because, from a strategic point of view, it’s much more comfortable for him to run against the PT than somebody from the centre.”