March 10, 2021

Latam

BRAZIL: Lula’s return is a threat to both Bolsonaro and centrists

BY Mario Marconini

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( 5 mins)
  • The Supreme Court decision to annul all cases against former President Lula could turn him into the strongest presidential candidate in 2022.
  • The rapporteur of Lava-Jato in the Supreme Court attempted to preserve the operation by limiting the scope of his decision to jurisdictional aspects of cases against Lula.
  • While the Left may unite around Lula, the Center remains highly divided, thus paving the way for a Bolsonaro-Lula showdown in October 2022.

The decision by Supreme Court (STF) judge Luis Edson Fachin to annul all cases against former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva by granting on 8 March a habeas corpus filed by his defense last November changes significantly the political landscape in Brazil. Five years after the start of a process that resulted in the incarceration of the former president for 580 days on the back of a nine-and-a-half-year sentence, the rapporteur of the Lava-Jato operation at the Supreme Court (STF) has done a volte-face that restores the political rights of Brazil’s most popular left-wing leader in time for a run at the presidency in 2022. It is likely that the Prosecutor’s Office will appeal the decision but the plenary of the STF will confirm Fachin’s decision. Lula has so far denied any interest in running but it is now widely expected that he will indeed seek a third term in office.

The decision

Lula’s defense has been consistent in arguing all along that Lava-Jato judge Sergio Moro was biased in how he handled evidence, prosecutors, the media, and the defendant himself – and has gone as far as to file a writ of habeas corpus (HC) questioning Moro’s impartiality in regard to Lula. However, Fachin chose to rule on another HC that argued that Lula’s alleged wrongdoing was not exclusively related to Petrobras – in which case the 13th Federal Court of Curitiba had no jurisdictional competence to prosecute and judge the former president. In his decision, Fachin did not go into the merits of any decision or sentence but just ruled that Lula’s cases should be transferred from Curitiba to the nation’s capital where they will have to start from scratch. Even if the Brasilia court acts fast by Brazilian judicial standards to confirm Lula’s sentences, the former president will still have plenty of time to run for office again in October 2022. Most of the charges would in any case expire before a definitive verdict is likely to be reached in any retrial of the relevant cases.

Polarization

Lula’s re-emergence as a presidential candidate has the potential to influence much of what happens leading up to the October 2022 elections. Suddenly, President Jair Bolsonaro, who was rejoicing in seeing the political center and the Left increasingly divided and was counting on another run-off showdown against the same presidential candidate from the Workers’ Party (PT) as in 2018, Fernando Haddad, now has to deal with the fact that the PT candidate will most likely be Lula himself. A new poll was released over the weekend on the voting potential of the ten most possible presidential contenders. Lula had the greatest potential among all, with 50% responding that they could vote for the former president against 44% who could not. By comparison, Bolsonaro’s equivalent numbers are 38% and 56% respectively. Bolsonaro had among the highest rejection levels of all ten politicians considered. The poll also showed that polarization between Lula and Bolsonaro on each end of the political spectrum remains a strong possibility since all centrist hopefuls have high rejection ratings. The center-right social-democrat Sao Paulo governor Joao Doria (PSDB), for example, had a 57% rejection and only a 19% voting potential.

Left and Center

In principle, the Left should unite around Lula to face Bolsonaro in the next elections. However, this is not a given. Ciro Gomes from the Labor Democrats (PDT), for example, seems unlikely to back down from his fourth presidential run. Lula has been perceived as arrogant by much of the Left, as he has never favored any leftist coalition that did not have the PT leading the way. In the Center, Lula’s re-emergence in the 2022 electoral equation puts a lot of pressure on centrists to coalesce around one single and strong candidate and avoid the dispersion that took place in the last elections. However, none of the names currently believed to aspire to lead the center is strong enough to amass support from all centrists. In addition, if Lula plays his cards well and reverts to a version of his more market-friendly, center-left platform, he has a greater chance of attracting centrist votes than Bolsonaro or any of the top names in the center.

Bolsonaro risk

The president may feel strong following the election of pro-government leaders in both chambers of Congress and the pacification of his relations with the STF. The mishandling of the pandemic and related vaccination campaign, however, has been taking a heavy political toll on the president, though he does not seem to be considering changing his ways yet. Bolsonaro still criticizes masks, lockdowns, and vaccines, while insisting on blaming governors and mayors for what is blunt negligence from the federal government on virtually all aspects of the Covid-19 crisis. An emergency constitutional amendment that combined spending cuts with assistance for four months should reach final approval in Congress this week but may have taken too long to count as a political victory. The reform agenda may evolve but possibly not fast enough to allay market fears. The president remains his government’s main risk factor given his propensity to impetuous decision-making. With Lula back in the picture, that risk is all the more enhanced. Much will hinge on how the former president re-enters the political scene, but populism may indeed be an option for Bolsonaro, particularly if economy minister Paulo Guedes’ reform drive does not produce economic dividends fast enough in the run-up to next year’s elections.

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