Here in São Paulo, the city is beginning to come out of its winter season (July / August), a return to the relentless heat that makes up much of the year. Seven short weeks ahead of the first round of the Brazilian election, it feels as if election season is similarly beginning to ‘heat up.’ Before long, I expect the coming elections, arguably the most consequential since Lula’s ascendance in 2002, to embroil the country – inescapable from even passing conversations.
As an outsider to Brazil, I am admittedly insulated from the incessant news media and their daily stories recounting a statement made or question asked on the campaign trail. Even the notorious ‘horario eleitorial,’ a hour each night on broadcast television dedicated to proportionally representing the Presidential candidates (a fascinating breakdown here), will largely pass me by. As a result, much of my media consumption related to Brazilian politics take place via foreign correspondents and contributions to English-language publications. It’s been fascinating to contrast the increasing alarm making its way to international news consumers with my day-to-day conversations with Brazilians.
English language publications are mainly focused on two main stories: the continued and problematic ascendence of Jair Bolsonaro, which I’ve discussed before at length, with yet another red flag raised in the NYTimes’ opinion pages, and the no-win situation surrounding the electoral status of former President Lula da Silva. Lula has increasingly become Brazil’s most divisive figure, adding to his long-held status as its most popular. Since April, Lula has been imprisoned related to a ongoing investigation into corruption allegations, though he has remained a vocal member of the political press, disseminating statements through his lawyers and political allies.
As Reuters explains, over the next week the Brazilian courts are faced with determining whether or not to allow Lula to formally run for President. Given conviction in the “Lava Jato” corruption scandal for accepting bribes in exchange for state contracts, and various related corruption charges either underway or in ongoing appeal, Lula should be ineligible for running for President based on the “Clean Slate” law, passed by Lula himself in 2010.
Lula maintains his innocence on any claims of corruption, and critics and democracy advocates alike have cited the flimsy evidence behind his conviction, as well as accusations of political motivation behind his ongoing imprisonment. Despite his imprisonment and the claims of corruption that have shrouded him throughout the Lava Jato investigation, Lula remains extremely popular to many, and a political prisoner to some, who rally outside of the Curitiba prison that he’s being held in. If permitted to run, Lula would immediately become the frontrunner in the coming Presidential elections, presenting a vexing dilemma for the judges and a test of Brazil’s post-dictatorship democracy.
In the NYTimes, Lula was given an audience in the pages of the Opinion section (also available in Portuguese), calling for his release and citing an “extreme right-wing” conspiracy, led by Judge Sergio Moro but perpetrated by “right-wing, neoliberal elites who have always been opposed to our struggle for greater social justice and equality in Brazil.”
Meanwhile, the US Congress recently took the extraordinary step of writing a letter addressed to Sergio Amaral, the Brazilian Ambassador to the United States calling for the due process of Lula, conflating his imprisonment with the horrific murder of the activist Marielle Franco and the horrific human rights violations and murders associated with Brazil’s landless movement (a shocking and underdocumented crisis, as ably captured in the NY Review of Books). The letter, which includes members at the vanguard of the modern Democratic Party (Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison, and Maxine Waters),
We also urge Brazil’s judicial and political authorities to ensure fair elections and human rights protections. We recommend that Brazil’s courts promptly assess the merits of the charges against President Lula, in which no material evidence has yet been presented as proof of the former president’s corruption charges. European former government leaders have urdged that President Lula be granted freedom while appeals to his conviction are pending, in accordance with Brazil’s constitutional guarantees. The fight against corruption must not be used to justify the persecution of political opponents or deny them the right to freely participate in elections.
In my conversations with Brazilians in São Paulo (far from a Lula stronghold), there is little doubt that Lula will be disbarred from participating in the election. Bolstering this viewpoint, there is speculation that Lula himself deems his eligibility as a foregone conclusion, but is seeking to keep hope alive among his supporters for as long as possible to prop up the electoral prospects of his partymate, Fernando Haddad and his Workers’ Party. As Reuters reports, Lula has “transformed his jail cell into his campaign headquarters”
Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s former Mexican foreign minister, penned an editorial in the NYTimes, weighing the case against the risk of disenfranchising millions of Brazilian voters, who believe deeply in his innocence regardless of any evidence plied against him. He ultimately advocates for Lula being allowed to run on the grounds of strengthening democracy in Brazil, and also as a “best-worst case” in comparison to the right-wing reactionary candidacy of Bolsonaro. Sound familiar?
Castañeda lays out the no-win situation left for the judges:
In the end, though I believe that the Lava Jato scandal, as well as the diligence of judges like Mr. Moro, have served Brazil and Latin America well, I prefer to see Lula on the ballot than in jail.
The charges brought against him are too flimsy, the purported crime so petty (until now), the sentence so brazenly disproportionate and the stakes so high that in Latin America today, democracy should trump — so to speak — the rule of law. In an ideal world, the two go together and certainly do not clash with each other. In Brazil, they do. I’ll go with democracy, warts and all.
Regardless of the judges’ decision next week, there are sure to be fireworks to come — for now, it’s just a question of from which side.