Jair Bolsonaro is not the only larger-than-life politician in Brazil running for president anymore. In a surprise ruling this week, a Supreme Court judge overturned two corruption convictions against former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, better known simply as Lula, opening the door for him to contest the 2022 presidential election.
As with all things Brazilian politics, it’s complicated. Here’s what happens next in Brazil.
Why It Matters:
Lula, a former union leader, was president of Brazil from 2003-2010, a particularly good time to be running the country given the global commodities boom underway. Lula channeled Brazil’s economic windfall into generous welfare and public programs, winning over a loyal contingent of Brazil’s electorate in the process. (He also became something of a poster child for the “new” Latin American left.) When Lula left office, he was replaced by his protégé Dilma Rousseff… but then the economy ground to a halt, and the expansive “Lava Jato” investigations began unearthing the wide-ranging corruption of Brazil’s political class. Lula was swept up in Lava Jato as well, right as Rousseff was accused of accounting tricks to jumpstart the economy. She was impeached, and Lula ended up being convicted on two counts of corruption. Those guilty charges prevented the still-popular Lula from running in elections in 2018, but even if he had been able to run, he faced an uphill battle given how fed up Brazilian society was with corruption.
Enter Jair Bolsonaro, a hard-right politico who managed to use his outsider status and anti-corruption rhetoric to vault himself to the presidency despite an endless string of controversial and insulting statements against gay people, minorities, and plenty of others (just ask French President Emmanuel Macron). During the Trump era, he was often lumped in the same category of “populist” world leaders whose refusal to play by the traditional political rules (putting it charitably) was central to his political appeal. Also, like Trump, Bolsonaro consistently downplayed the dangers of coronavirus, leading Brazil to register more than 11 million cases (third highest in the world) and more than 270,000 deaths (second-highest in the world, behind only the U.S.). To take the Trump comparison even further, Bolsonaro is a polarizing figure in a polarized country who has managed to maintain a solid base of supporters (fluctuating between 30-40 percent) despite multiple controversies, a fact which makes him the odds-on favorite to win reelection in 2022. Or at least he was until this week.
What Happens Next:
Those corruption charges against Lula barred him from running in elections in 2018, but the judge’s decision earlier this week overturning Lula’s convictions—on a technicality, that he was tried in the wrong jurisdiction—opens the door to his political return. But Lula isn’t in the clear yet, as the annulment must be upheld by the Federal Supreme Court. While that sounds straightforward, it is not.
Originally, Lula’s lawyers wanted the charges against him thrown out because they accused the presiding judge Sergio Moro (who would go on to become Justice Minister for Bolsonaro, before resigning over presidential attempts to interfere in his work) for bias and collusion. This is a serious charge, and one that threatens to unravel many of the related Lava Jato cases Moro had connections to. While Moro is facing his own allegations of collusion, since the ruling for Lula this week was based on a technicality, the evidence already collected against Lula can in theory be reused if and when charges are brought against him in the proper district.
But it’s looking increasingly likely that even if that happens, there won’t be enough time to try and convict him to bar him from running again. According to Brazilian law, so long as a candidate is eligible by the filing deadline, they can run even if they are then found to be guilty. The deadline for the upcoming presidential race is August 2022, and given all the procedural steps between now and then, Lula will probably be eligible.
So what does a potential presidential race between Bolsonaro and Lula look like? Prior to this week’s developments, a large contingent of the Brazilian media had been fixated on the centrist contenders to take on Bolsonaro next year—partly because the Workers’ Party lacked a clear heir to Lula, and partly because they expected that a faltering economy would boost the fortunes of practical centrists who would focus more on finances than populist politics. That was always a suspect line of reasoning; recent election results in Argentina, Ecuador and Mexico have shown that voters in Latin America that are disgruntled by the political status quo have no problem swinging back to the left, state finances be damned. When people are angry, it’s hard to convince them to settle somewhere in the middle.
The real question then is what people in Brazil will be voting against come those presidential elections in 2022. The pandemic has fundamentally shifted political priorities—whereas Brazilians had been voting against corruption in recent years, now issues like health and jobs (where Lula has a solid track record, though critics will say that’s less because of him and more because of the global economic environment when he was president) have been brought to the forefront thanks to COVID-19. Which means the determining factor for Bolsonaro’s reelection chances is how the currently-struggling Brazilian economy will fare between now and those 2022 elections, a problem that will be closely connected to the administration’s (so far) disastrous handling of the pandemic.
And from that lens, Lula’s emergence as a candidate for Bolsonaro is actually a blessing since…
The One Major Misconception About It:
Is that Lula’s return is bad news, politically-speaking, for Bolsonaro. He isn’t—if anything, it makes it likely that Bolsonaro now has to run against a political figure as polarizing as he is. This is the equivalent of Donald Trump having to face off against Bernie Sanders rather than Joe Biden, someone who could win over both his own base and independents. That’s critical, as it leads to…
The Other Major Misconception About It:
Is the idea that Lula’s sudden entry in the race will make Bolsonaro lunge for populist economic policies to counter Lula’s. Bolsonaro is likely to avoid populist economic measures, as he seems to understand the precarious state of Brazil’s finances—his recent firing of the head of Petrobras made waves in the markets, and you better believe Bolsonaro noticed. His best shot at reelection is if the economy is doing well, and it can’t do well if the markets think he’s being irresponsible with finances, a challenge made even more difficult by his populist rhetoric in all other matters. So Lula returning to politics is actually more likely to make Bolsonaro more fiscally responsible, not less.
It will make the political rhetoric worse though, if we’re being honest. Watch this space.