On January 24th, a Brazilian appellate court may have finished off the career of the country’s most popular politician. The nine-and-a-half year prison sentence facing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, was not just upheld, but extended by three years. Lula was Brazil’s president from 2003 until 2011, and in 2017 he was charged with corruption. From beginning to end, the proceedings against Lula were a farce. The appellate court’s lead judge is a personal friend of trial judge Sergio Moro. The higher court’s president praised Moro’s work last summer, before admitting that he hadn’t actually reviewed the facts of the case. Moro released illegal wiretap recordings to the press, allowed himself to be photographed laughing with Lula’s political opponents, and arranged an unnecessary perp walk, among other shamelessly opportunistic tactics. The charge itself is almost shockingly weak: one convicted executive at multinational construction company OAS received a reduced sentence in return for claiming that OAS bribed Lula with an apartment. The apartment’s title was never transferred to Lula, he never stayed in the apartment, and there is no documentary evidence linking him to the apartment. A lawyer from the United Nations Human Rights Commission has taken up his case, arguing that Moro “curtailed [Lula’s] civil liberties” and rendered a fair proceeding impossible. Lula can still appeal to the Supreme Court, but its president recently indicated that she would not take up the case. Even a reduced sentence would disqualify Lula from participating in the election.
Assuming Lula can’t run, what happens next? After the latest court decision, he still leads in the polls by approximately 20 percent. Surveys indicate that if he is disqualified, 15% of his supporters would migrate to environmentalist Marina Silva, 14% would vote for brash leftist Ciro Gomes, 8% would vote for talk show host Luciano Huck, and 7% would switch to far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro. Currently polling in third place, Marina Silva grew up in poverty, learned to read at the age of 16, is one of Brazil’s few non-white political leaders, and is widely viewed as incorruptible. Her environmental work, close ties to business, and evangelical faith have led to a strange mix of green, neoliberal, and socially conservative views, which prevented her from building a base in the 2014 election but could allow her to build a coalition this time. The charismatic Jair Bolsonaro would rise from second place in the polls to first with Lula out, which is a terrifying prospect; he once said he’d “rather have a dead son than a gay son”, he told a Brazilian congresswoman that she was not attractive enough to be raped, he voiced support for giving police “free rein to kill,” and called Brazil’s military dictatorship a “time of glory”. Other candidates of note are Governor of Sao Paulo (and bland centrist) Geraldo Alckmin, whichever member of Lula’s party he would promote as his successor, and Manuela D’Avila, the Communist Party of Brazil’s first presidential candidate since Brazil re-democratized presidential elections in 1989. The election won’t be held until October, and without Lula, rage against the establishment would make it anyone’s game.
The most significant consequence of Lula’s disqualification would be a further lack of popular faith in democracy. Should he be disqualified, a record-high 32% of Brazilians would abstain, a shockingly high number in a country where voting is mandatory. Brazil was a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, and a backslide to military rule is a legitimate concern. Last year, a Brazilian Army general received applause at a lecture after warning that military leaders have considered and planned out a coup, and a survey found that almost half of all Brazilians support that idea. One group unconcerned by the latest disintegration of democratic norms was financial traders, who view Lula’s potential downfall as a cause for celebration. Brazil’s benchmark stock index and currency both rose by over 3% upon the news of the appellate court’s ruling, as a Sao Paulo hedge-fund manager expressed relief that “the guy who was completely not market-friendly is out.” This indifference in the face of threats to democracy, so long as it benefits profitability, comes as no surprise. The 1964 military coup that overthrew Brazil’s democratically-elected president had the support of Brazil’s business community, who grew very wealthy under the dictatorship that extrajudicially murdered over 400 Brazilians and tortured thousands.
This history makes Lula’s political career mildly miraculous, and helps explain his widespread and continued popularity. An uneducated metal worker who organized workers’ movements to fight for wage increases, he was once jailed by the regime for his activism. As president, he lifted tens of millions out of poverty by increasing the minimum wage, pension payments, employment, and median income. However, under pressure from international capital, he caved on economic policy, shifting right to embrace a more austere, market-friendly program, and in doing so failed to properly address Brazil’s position as one of the most unequal countries in the world. Even so, his decision not to take on Brazil’s concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few does not negate the very real improvements felt by millions of Brazilians, and the fact that he left office with an 83% approval rating speaks to that.
This popularity allowed him to handpick his protege Dilma Rousseff as his successor. In her youth, Rousseff was a guerilla in an armed revolutionary Marxist group, and her radical opposition to the regime led to her subsequent arrest and brutal torture. She moderated her views over the years and went on to spend decades in the bureaucracy. Once elected, Rousseff was quickly confronted with a financial crisis, and responded with austerity measures, rollbacks of labor rights, and privatization, all aimed at appeasing the markets’ concerns. This pivot to neoliberalism, different in degree but not in kind from Lula’s pivot, led to a spike in unemployment and a drop in wages. In 2013, over a million protested the poor quality of public services and skewed priorities of public spending. Her base largely alienated, business-friendly opposition leaders took advantage of her weak position to force more and more concessions, finally culminating in a soft coup. She was impeached on trumped-up charges and replaced with Michel Temer, a faithful representative of business interests and the most unpopular politician in the world. The end of Rousseff’s presidency would mark the beginning of the current democratic crisis. Investors have accrued massive benefits from the Right overthrowing Rousseff; since Temer became acting president, Brazil’s benchmark index has increased by over 60%. Temer has radically accelerated the erasure of workers’ gains, further weakening labor protections, broadening privatization, fighting for an increase in the retirement age, and attacking workers’ pensions.
The immediate future looks bleak. Even if Lula is allowed to run, his election is unlikely to pose a threat to the power structure undermining Brazil’s democracy. A third term for Lula would, at best, kick the can down the road. The threat of a military takeover or another financial crisis giving business leaders the leverage to once again destroy workers’ modest gains would hang over his head or the head of whoever would succeed him. Of course, a reversal of his sentence would be far better than the current situation, which could prove to be a death blow to Brazil’s faith in democracy. Of the two current frontrunners, Marina Silva and Jair Bolsonaro are both business friendly, but an evangelical neoliberal is preferable to a quasi-fascist. Unless a workers’ mass movement comes together or the fragmented far-left can band together and form a coalition, two unlikely scenarios, it’s hard to see a way out.