Corruption Convictions Quashed

Former Brazilian President is Back in the Game

On March 8, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin overturned former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (better known by his nickname Lula) corruption convictions, opening the door for him to contest the 2022 presidential election against the incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro. Fachin had ruled that Lula’s conviction was null due to his trial by a court that did not have proper jurisdiction over his case. 

Lula, a former union leader and popular president known for bringing millions of working Brazilians out of poverty, was convicted of corruption and money laundering during the Lava Jato investigation, an extensive probe that began as rather unremarkable but led to the conviction of 174 people. The inquiry implicated people from low-level government officials to state-owned corporate executives to former Peruvian and Brazilian presidents and led to massive protests in major Brazilian cities with millions demanding change. Prosecutors recovered almost 5 billion USD that was laundered and used for bribes and kickbacks. While politicians of all political stripes were arrested and tried, the blame fell squarely on the party in power at the time– the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT) headed by Lula’s successor, former President Dilma Rouseff.

The prospect of Lula entering the race complicates matters for the incumbent. Initially, Lula’s candidacy might be seen as a boon for Bolsonaro, who went from being a relatively unknown member of Brazil’s National Congress to occupying the nation’s highest office. An unabashed right-winger and social conservative, Bolsonaro painted himself as a populist outsider and an alternative to the endemic corruption of the former party in power, the leftist Workers’ Party (PT).

Coming off the heels of Lava Jato, Bolsonaro’s anti-corruption and anti-establishment message was extremely effective in securing him the presidency. Bolsonaro’s unwillingness to play by traditional political rules was central to his anti-establishment persona. This image might be much more difficult to maintain, having recently fired his appointee for Minister of Justice for investigating his eldest son, a senator, who was indicted on charges of graft and money laundering as well as dismantling other similar anti-corruption probes. Whether Bolsonaro can harness this populist image against Lula, his greatest opponent on the left, is yet to be seen. Recent polls from Ipec, published in the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, showed Lula as the only potential presidential candidate outperforming the incumbent in 2022, with 50% of respondents saying they would vote for Lula in the upcoming election versus 38% for Bolsonaro. 

The presidential election hinges on who or what becomes the major point of political consternation going into 2022– whether it’s the slow pandemic response and the accompanying economic malaise, or opposition to the PT, seen by many on the right as epitomizing political corruption. With two intensely polarizing candidates (44% of respondents of the Ipec poll said they would never vote for Lula, 56% said they would never vote for Bolsonaro), calls for a more moderate platform for voters to coalesce around have increased. However, as the incumbent, it will be much more difficult for Bolsonaro to paint himself as a crusading outsider, especially given that he can’t resort to populist economic programs due to the fragile state of the Brazilian economy for fear of destabilizing markets. The decision to overturn Lula’s charges alone led to a decrease in the Brazilian currency, something the incumbent can’t afford to have to deal with. Bolsonaro’s strongest bet for reelection depends on the strength of the economy, and Lula’s candidacy will likely pressure Bolsonaro into a more fiscally conservative economic platform. 

Demands for change in political leadership might be spurred by the current handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. With Brazil seeing a record number of deaths, an ineffective vaccine rollout, and a new virus variant that might exacerbate the problems in the country’s response to the pandemic, political leadership is needed. While other countries have been able to slow the spread of the virus and tentatively reopen their economies amid promising results from vaccinations, Brazil is still reporting record numbers of Coronavirus deaths– a seven-day average of 2,173 newly reported deaths by day in March. 

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