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Lula’s Return: From Prison to Presidency?

The former Brazilian president spent several years in jail for political corruption, but is running again versus Jair Bolsonaro.

Time magazine has cast its vote in the Brazilian election. The May 23/May 30 double issue features Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the cover. Lula, as he is always called, was president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. He is currently running to reclaim the presidency from incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. The election is scheduled for October. The title of the article, “Brazil’s Most Popular President Returns From Political Exile With a Promise to Save the Nation,” leaves little doubt whose side Time is on.

Lula, 76, was born into poverty in northeastern Brazil and rose to national prominence as a trade union leader. He ran for president unsuccessfully in 1989, 1994, and 1998, before finally winning in 2002. His presidency coincided with a boom in global commodities prices, which bolstered the Brazilian economy and allowed him to spend big on welfare for the poor. Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, became president in 2011. Rousseff was incompetent, with a Kamala Harris-esque knack for giving incomprehensible speeches. The Brazilian constitution only limits a president to two consecutive terms. Many commentators believe Lula intended Rousseff to keep his seat warm till he was eligible to run again. But that plan was derailed when the Brazilian economy crashed and Rousseff was impeached.

Time’s article breezes past Lula’s staggering record of corruption. Lula is not returning from “political exile.” He is returning from prison. After Lula left office, Brazil was turned upside down by Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), the largest corruption scandal ever uncovered in any country. Many of the alleged crimes took place on Lula’s watch.

He was convicted of taking bribes from big construction companies in the form of a beachfront apartment and free renovation work on a country house. His imprisonment kept him from seeking the presidency in 2018, clearing the way for the victory of Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist sometimes nicknamed “the Brazilian Trump.” Lula spent 18 months in the clink before the Brazilian Supreme Court vacated his convictions on technical grounds. He was never found innocent of the charges.

Operation Car Wash is not even the full extent of the corruption that took place on Lula’s watch. During his presidency, the Workers Party, which he co-founded, was discovered to be taking money from state-owned companies to pay members of Congress for their political support. Lula himself was not charged in connection with the scandal, which is known as Mensalão (“big monthly payments”).

Why does Lula want to be president a third time? He doesn’t seem to have a ready answer. “I am only running because I can do better than I did before,” he tells Time rather vaguely. Reading the interview, it is hard not to wonder if Lula is running again because it is the only thing he knows how to do. He doesn’t have a cause that is driving him this time around.

Lula had a successful presidency during Brazil’s fat years. The economy was booming. His predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, left public finances on a stable footing. If Lula is elected this fall, however, he will inherit a post-pandemic recession. How will he fix the economy? He refuses to give Time any specifics. “You have to understand that instead of asking what I will do, just look at what I’ve done,” he says.

This election cycle, Lula has been dipping his toes into identity politics. But it is telling that theTime article quotes his surrogates on these issues, not Lula himself. Throughout his entire career, Lula has been animated by Marxist ideas about class struggle. When he talks about those issues, he is speaking from his heart. When he tries to talk about gender equality or police violence in the same way, he comes across as inauthentic. He says Bolsonaro has dismantled his legacy of helping the poor. However, the truth is that Bolsonaro has continued all the same social welfare programs as Lula.

Lula said publicly he wants to liberalize his country’s restrictive abortion laws. Brazil is a very conservative society, and this may not play well with the poorer voters Lula is counting on. Bolsonaro has done a good job of positioning himself as the defender of traditional values, and his voting base is Brazil’s evangelicals and conservative Catholics.

Time criticizes Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid-19. It repeats the lie that Bolsonaro called the virus “a little flu.” His words are taken out of context. During a speech in March 2020, Bolsonaro noted that the risk group for the virus is persons over the age of 60. Since he was 65 himself at the time, he added, “In my particular case, because of my athletic background, if I were to catch the virus I would not need to worry. I would not feel anything more than at most a little flu or cold.”

Bolsonaro’s stance was that only those in the risk group should isolate. He opposed shutdowns which he said hurt Brazil’s poor. He did not get a vaccine himself, arguing that he has natural immunity after he contracted the virus. Bolsonaro did bungle vaccine purchasing and distribution. He also fired several competent health minsters, even as the pandemic was raging. Last year, Lula gave an interview in which he called Bolsonaro an “agent of genocide” However, the pandemic is mostly in the rearview mirror at this point. Voters are more concerned with a candidate’s plans for dealing with the economic fallout.

When Bolsonaro ran for president the first time, media coverage focused on vulgar, offensive comments he made in the past. Time doesn’t bring them up this time round. That’s likely because Lula is highly vulnerable in this area. Over the course of his long public career, he has made countless racist and sexist utterances.

The points in the interview when Lula seems to hit his stride are when he is expressing views the editorial board of Time won’t like. Lula tears into President Joe Biden for not doing more to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Biden could have avoided [the war], not incited it,” he says. “He could have participated more. Biden could have taken a plane to Moscow to talk to Putin. This is the kind of attitude you expect from a leader.”

Lula has no time for the media adulation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “This guy is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty,” Lula says. “You are encouraging this guy, and then he thinks he is the cherry on your cake. We should be having a serious conversation. OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.”

Lula is also not particularly progressive on climate issues. He refuses to halt new oil exploration in Brazil, saying, “As long as you don’t have alternative energy, you will continue to use the energy you have.” He frames this as a question of national sovereignty, just as Bolsonaro does.

Time quotes a poll that puts Lula at 45 percent and Bolsonaro at 31 percent. However, a different major Brazilian poll in April put Lula at 37 percent and Bolsonaro at 35 percent. This is within the margin of error. In Brazilian electoral history, the incumbent has always enjoyed a massive advantage. Whatever Time may say, the likeliest outcome is that Bolsonaro will be reelected in October.

Lula had two successful terms as president and avoided spending his final years in prison. Maybe he should have been satisfied with those accomplishments and enjoyed his retirement.

Emma Freire is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism fellow and freelance writer who has been published in the Federalist, Human Events, and others. Over the past decade, she has lived with her husband and three children in Brazil, South Africa, and Europe, but she identifies as American.