RIO DE JANEIRO—In a bombshell decision that could reshape Brazil’s political future, a Supreme Court judge has scrapped the corruption convictions against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, granting him the freedom to challenge far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s elections.
A presidential bid by Lula could spell disaster for Bolsonaro, who styled himself as an anti-establishment alternative to the leftist leader during the 2018 presidential campaign.
“Lula is the worst opponent that Bolsonaro could possibly face,” Talita Tanscheit, a political scientist and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told The Daily Beast. “This is not good news for him.”
While the ruling does not mean Lula won’t face charges again in a different court, it does grant him the right to stand in elections again.
Lula presided over a historic golden era of economic growth in Brazil, fuelled by an almost decade-long commodity boom. During his two terms in office between 2003 and 2011, millions of Brazilians climbed out of poverty, thanks to social policies introduced by Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party, known as PT.
The wildly popular politician, who is now 75, was poised to seek a third term in 2018, but his candidacy was derailed when he was jailed on disputed corruption charges. As scandal ensnared Lula and the PT, growing disillusionment with the left paved the way for Bolsonaro’s overwhelming victory.
Since then, Brazil’s far-reaching corruption investigation—known as Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash—has unravelled amid allegations of foul play, dampening the anti-leftist wave that lifted Bolsonaro to power. “Each day, it becomes more evident that Lava Jato was just a collective delusion,” Tanscheit said. “The operation was discredited. And this helps Lula.”
Lula became a deeply polarizing figure thanks to the anti-corruption probe that implicated scores in Brazil’s political and business elite. Yet Lula has now gained back the sympathy of many Brazilians, Sérgio Praça, a political scientist and commentator, told The Daily Beast
“There’s a sense that Lula was wronged by Lava Jato and that he deserves another chance,” Praça said, noting that a presidential run by Lula was “probable.”
“What we don’t know right now is the extent of this sentiment. We don’t know if it’s enough to get him over the line on election day,” he added.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s own image has taken a series of blows. Brazil has suffered one of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, and Bolsonaro has responded by repeatedly downplaying the need for lockdowns and vaccinations. The virus has so far infected 11 million people in Brazil and claimed the lives of some 265,000.
“The scenario worsens every day for Bolsonaro.” Praça said. “I think it will be difficult for him to escape punishment at the polls for his incompetence during the pandemic.”
Soaring unemployment and a sputtering economy have also alienated supporters who were drawn to Bolsonaro’s promise for a new economic era. A generous emergency cash voucher for those hit by the pandemic briefly lifted his popularity last year, but a recent cut to the aid has angered many Brazilians, dwindling his approval ratings to just 30 percent.
Despite weakened support, Bolsonaro was on steady political ground due to a sheer lack of opposition, said Eduardo Grin, a researcher at the socioeconomic think-tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo. Battered by scandal, the left has struggled to reinvent itself and put forward a fresh face with appeal rivalling Lula’s. With a fragmented political landscape, there were also few centrist contenders popular enough to challenge Bolsonaro at the polls in 2022.
“Until now, Bolsonaro had not confronted any strong political adversaries,” Grin told The Daily Beast. “Lula’s political record is really strong. And Bolsonaro didn’t expect to have to confront this.”
For now, opinion polls signal that Lula might have an edge over Bolsonaro. A recent poll showed that half of Brazilians would vote for the leftist ex-president in the next elections, while 38 percent said they would cast a ballot for Bolsonaro. Some 44 percent rejected Lula, while 56 percent said they would never vote for Bolsonaro.
But the Trump-styled, populist Bolsonaro still enjoys fervent support among a core base of supporters who identify with his conservative rhetoric, focus on crime, and “family values.” Now, a political standoff between Bolsonaro and Lula could further embolden this loyal base and boost support for the former army captain.
In any case, a political standoff between Lula and Bolsonaro—one on the left and the other on the extreme right—is likely to usher in an era of even deeper polarization among Brazilian voters, explained Grin.
“These extreme camps will leave a void in the political centre,” he said. “So we will likely see a society that becomes more and more polarized.”