Presidential in Brazil: from prison to the election, Lula has come back from (very) far to challenge Jair Bolsonaro

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on October 9, 2022. (IVAN ABREU / SOPA IMAGES / SIPA)

In the last presidential election, in 2018, the former Brazilian leader, imprisoned, could not even vote. He beat the outgoing president by a short head on Sunday and will begin a third term as head of the country.

At the end of January 2022, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returns to the precise place where his public career began. The former worker, twice president of Brazil (from 2003 to 2010), is visiting the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union, in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in the suburbs of Sao Paulo. He comes to congratulate the new leader of the union, but another objective drives him, ten months before the presidential election. “We have an election campaign this year. It’s not just any,” he recalls.

At this precise moment, Lula is leading the polls to beat incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and regain the presidential palace of Aurora, twelve years after leaving it. The 77-year-old former head of state, “the most popular politician in the world” in Barack Obama’s opinion, has come a long way. Nearly four years earlier, he left the same metalworkers’ union to be imprisoned for 19 months. For Lula, the story of the last three years is that of a comeback, until the second round of the presidential election, Sunday, October 30. “The political return of the decade, even the century”, according to the Financial Times*.

In prison, “he played politics as usual”

On April 7, 2018, still in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a crowd of sympathizers refused to see its leader leave. It is almost 7 p.m. when Lula, surrounded by crying supporters, decides to leave the steelworkers’ union on foot to go to the police, reports Le Monde. “The revolution continues”, proclaims the former president, condemned for corruption. He spent his first night in prison the same evening, at the federal police headquarters in Curitiba, further south in Brazil.

Former President Lula leaves the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union to surrender to the police on April 7, 2018 in Sao Bernardo do Campo (Brazil). (THIAGO BERNARDES / FRAME PHOTO / AFP)

The fall of the leftist leader can be summed up in two words: “Lava Jato”. The operation in question, which lifted the veil on a huge bribery scandal involving players in the construction industry, the state oil company Petrobras and many Brazilian politicians, did not spare the former president. Lula is accused of having received an apartment in a seaside resort free of charge from a company implicated in this endemic corruption affair. He was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison, then finally to 12 years, for passive corruption and money laundering. Facts he totally denies.

In Curitiba, the fallen politician is working tirelessly on his defense. He immerses himself in reading as much as he plays sports. “Lula had a cell, in fact a room in the police station transformed into a cell, all to himself. He had a treadmill… He had a lot of energy”, recalls Stanley Gacek, a lawyer and longtime friend of Lula. This labor law specialist came to visit him in May 2019.

“He received several hundred visits in prison. Visits from political figures, humanitarians…”

“Lula was very politically active in prison,” continues Claudio Couto, researcher at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV). The political scientist evokes the “instructions” given from Curitiba to the president of the Workers’ Party (PT), Gleisi Hoffmann, the recurring visits of the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, or the arrivals of foreign intellectuals and politicians (including Jean -Luc Mélenchon, to name but one). Prisoner Lula “negotiates, sets up alliances. He was involved in politics as usual”, underlines Claudio Couto. Brazil specialist Anthony Pereira, a professor at Florida International University in the United States, supports his remarks: “He is someone who is instinctively political. He did not stop being so in prison”.

Lula, imprisoned after being convicted of corruption, gives an interview to the newspapers “El Pais” and “Folha de Sao Paulo” at the federal police headquarters in Curitiba (Brazil), on April 26, 2019. (ISABELLA LANAVE / EL PAIS / AFP)

On the 384th day of his incarceration, the leader is for the first time interviewed from his place of detention. As the documentary Brazil and the Lula da Silva case (broadcast on Arte) relates, the statesman evokes the “masquerade” of Operation Lava Jato, then, with tears in his eyes, the death of two relatives. “What drives me forward is the awareness of having a commitment to this country and to this people,” he insists. “When I get out of here, I will stand with the Brazilians.” In the following weeks and months, contacts with the press multiplied. “He responded to countless interviews. We had an hour with him,” recalls Fanny Lothaire, correspondent in Brazil for France Televisions and France 24. “We felt like we had a top athlete in front of us. , who had lost a competition but was preparing for the next one.”

“It was obvious that he would be a candidate”

Around the police headquarters, supporters of Lula take turns “morning, noon and evening” to support their leader. “There were sometimes 50 people, with a real camp … He himself heard their ‘hello Lula’, ‘good night Lula'”, describes Fanny Lothaire. The former president “always had a great support from the Brazilian population. He had more than 80% support after two terms, it’s very rare”, underlines the geographer Martine Droulers, director of research emeritus at the CNRS.

When Lula comes out of detention on November 8, 2019, a human tide awaits him. “It was a carnival,” recalls the journalist. The Supreme Court ruled that imprisonment was only possible once all remedies had been exhausted. By recovering his freedom, the former worker immediately said he was ready to “fight for this country”. “If we use common sense and work hard, in 2022 this so-called left that scares Bolsonaro so much will defeat this extreme right that we want to defeat so badly,” he said a little later. crowd. “He didn’t say he would be a candidate, but it was obvious”, comments Claudio Couto.

Former President Lula, released from prison, during a rally in support outside the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union in Sao Bernardo do Campo (Brazil), on November 9, 2019. (NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

The following days, Lula communicates on Twitter, tries to build alliances and multiplies the speeches, notes the Washington Post*. A period then begins during which “he consults, meets intellectuals, trade unionists and leaders to prepare the formula for his candidacy”, describes Christophe Ventura, research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris). Stanley Gacek sees him again in February 2020, while the former president has just returned from a visit to the Vatican. “He organized rallies, developed a critical mass of support for the return of democratic order,” says the lawyer.

Lula moved closer to the campaign when, in March 2021, the Supreme Court overturned his convictions, ruling that the Curitiba court was “not competent” for such matters. Only the Federal Court of Brasilia can be and, until then, Lula can regain his eligibility. A second ruling declares Judge Sergio Moro, the first to condemn Lula, “biased” in his decision. Serious dysfunctions and evidence of collusion between the prosecutors and the judge have emerged, not to mention his appointment to the Ministry of Justice, under the Bolsonaro presidency. The announcement comes at a time of weakness for the far-right president, whose handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is deemed catastrophic.

“In 2021, Lula took care, without much difficulty, to appear as the anti-Bolsonaro: a responsible statesman, wearing the mask and calling on people to get vaccinated”, recalls Armelle Enders, professor at Paris 8 University and specialist in contemporary Brazil. The historian describes a man who appears “decent” in the face of the “vulgarity” of the president in office, a man “with international connections” when Bolsonaro is sometimes seen as an “outcast”. The contrast is striking in the fall of 2021. On the one hand, a head of state in office at the G20 summit in Rome, neglected by other leaders and discussing with waiters. On the other, Lula, welcomed a few weeks later with open arms in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Brussels. “I am ready”, he loose in front of the European Parliament.

A nostalgia campaign

A few months later, it’s official. “I am getting back into the fight,” proclaimed the leader to his supporters on May 7, 2022, during his campaign launch meeting. He unveils his movement, Let’s Mobilize for Brazil, a broad coalition of left-wing and centrist parties to defeat Jair Bolsonaro. The far right “forces us to overcome our differences”, launches the one who chose a former right-wing rival, Geraldo Alckmin, as running mate. “This is the strategy of the democratic front: this campaign must be a confrontation between all those who want Brazil to become a democracy again and those who want to drag it towards fascism”, analyzes Christophe Ventura.

Former president and presidential candidate Lula, with his running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, and Workers’ Party candidate for governor of Sao Paulo state, Fernando Haddad, on October 8, 2022 in the middle of the crowd in Campinas (Brazil). (NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

Gather and remobilize around the memory of the Lula years. His campaign constantly recalls this prosperous decade, like these photos of the former president displayed for the launch of his campaign, underlines the Guardian *. “Rather than asking me what I’m going to do, ask me what I’ve done,” he replies during an interview for the American magazine Time*. “He did not really present a program, it is a bit of his weak point, points out Martine Droulers. He rather advocated love against hatred, but there was not much on the concrete policy .”

“It was a deliberately much more retrospective campaign than forward-looking. If he had gone into detail, he would have started to alienate people.”

Will Lula convince? One thing is certain, if he wins in the second round, it will be an “extraordinary” political return, judges the former director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.