On September 1st, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE) decided that former President Luis Inacio Lula de Silva would be barred from running for president in October’s race. In a six to one verdict, the court denied Lula’s attempt to run for a third presidential term. The court’s decision was based in the country’s Lei da Limpa (Clean Slate) law, which prevents candidates charged with corruption from participating in elections. In April, Lula was sentenced to 12 years and one month in prison, for crimes of corruption and money laundering.
Though widely anticipated, the decision injects volatility into the upcoming contest. Last month, members of Brazil’s Worker’s Party – donning cardboard Lula masks and holding signs that said “A Lula Livre” (Free Lula) – nominated him as their presidential candidate. Their hope was that the move would generate sufficient support to force the courts to set him free, permitting him to campaign. In a recent interview, the Party’s president and a senator, Gleisi Hoffmann, said, “Lula is innocent, so we won’t accept any other candidate.” His strongest supporters, who vehemently deny the charges laid against him, have threatened hunger strikes and marches. Last month’s Festival Lula Livre in Arcos da Lapa drew hundreds of thousands of attendees, with over 40 artists performing in solidarity of the Worker’s Party champion.
Such activity demonstrates the enduring level of support for Lula, and his party. When Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985, the country turned toward a left-leaning regime that championed better social institutions, and a committment to improving the quality of life for its population as a whole. As one of the founding members of the country’s Worker’s Party, Lula fit into that shift perfectly. During his eight years in office, his administration succeeded in reducing poverty by nearly a half, in part by increasing the minimum wage by 50%. His internationally recognized Bolsa Familia program assisted mothers in poor families, and also improved the country’s public education.
Despite these successes, Lula’s post-Presidential tenure has been marred by legal woes. Operation Lavo Jato (Car Wash), began as an investigation into doleiros, or black market money dealers. However, the operation evolved into Brazil’s largest corruption scandal, unearthing more than $5bn dollars’ worth of illicit payments made to company executives and political parties by Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company. It found that the company overpaid private firms on contracts for construction, drilling, refining, and exploration, and that 1% to 5% of every deal, was diverted into secret slush funds. From those accounts, money would be funneled to key politicians. Former Sentaor Amaral named Lula as the mastermind of the Petrobas scheme, organizing payoffs, and encouraging key individuals involved – such as Petrobas CEO Nestor Cervero – to flee the country.
Lula’s sentencing in April was the culmination of a year-long prosecution by Brazilian judiciary, in an attempt to end corruption and bribery. In response, the former President has accused Brazil’s judicial system of conspiring with right-wing powers to keep him and his allies out of government. In August 2016, Dilma Roussef, Lula’s handpicked successor, was impeached and removed from office in a 61 to 20 Senate vote. She was charged with manipulating the federal budget to conceal the nation’s mounting economic problems.
Though the Worker’s Party and Brazilian socialistas were the first to be blamed in the Petrobas scandal, nearly every major party was tarnished. Grafting and deal-making, sometimes referred to as a kind of jeitinho—meaning “little way around something”—has long been a staple for Brazil’s highest levels of politics. Indeed, the complicated nature of the Brazilian political system generates pressure to engage in corruption. With over 28 parties in Congress alone, and even more at local, state, and federal level, campaigns are expensive, and majorities difficult to secure. Politicians running with political parties have less ideological and more fiscal loyalty to their coalitions, sometimes switching party mid-term. Coalitions have to be formed just to establish a strong voting base, and well-greased palms are often the best means of assembling them.
Michael Temer, Brazil’s current president, Lula’s former running mate, and member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, has been accused of graft, including accepting bribes, as well as illegal campaign funds from the Worker’s Party. Moreover, over half of the Congressional membership face legal challenges in one form or another, ranging from public contract violations to more serious charges of kidnapping or murder. In May 2016, the former Speaker of the House, was ejected, to face trial on charges of securing more than $40 million in bribes to offshore Swiss accounts. The widespread nature of Brazilian corruption, together claims that Lula has been the victim of selective justice, explains why the former President has – from his jail cell in Curitiba – managed to secured as high as 39% in pre-election forecasts. Prior to being barred from running, his closest opponent – Jair Bolsonaro of the far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL) – lagged some 20 points behind.
Lula claims that even with him out of the race, his ideas will live on and Brazil’s young democracy will continue to thrive. Yet successfully transferring his support to a different candidate looks unlikely. Currently, the Worker’s Party has until Saturday, September 8, to announce a new standard-bearer. Fernando Haddad, former education minister under ex-President Rousseff and Sao Paulo’s mayor from 2013-2016, is expected to replace Lula as the Presidential candidate. He has promised to undo much of Temer’s policies such as market-friendly reforms, as well as tax banks with higher interest rate spreads. He also opposes the sale of state-owned companies, including Petrobras and Electrobras, seeking to keep those firms under governmental control. Yet with Lula out of the race, it is Bolsonaro who leads the race with 22% support, followed by the former environmental minister, Marina Silva on 16%. Haddad, by contrast, is only projected to win 4% in a Lula-less vote.