The former Brazilian president was a phenomenon before his fall from grace. But with elections approaching, is there one more twist in the tale of Lula?
The most recognisable politician in Brazil takes off his reading glasses and offers a strong hand. “You can call me Lula,” says the country’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, when we meet at his institute in São Paulo. This presidential library of sorts, 20km north of the poor industrial suburb of São Bernardo do Campo where Lula grew up, has been his office since his second term ended in 2011. His name is printed on the faded doormat, there are two portraits of him in the reception room and the carpet is coming up at the corners. The place has seen better days but then so has the former leader.
Lula is preparing to run for president again next year. The Brazil he left behind in 2011, he says, was in “a period of ecstasy”. The economy was growing at its fastest rate in a quarter of a century. Credit was cheap and a new, confident middle-class was expanding, thanks in part to greater global demand for raw materials – Brazil’s primary export. Lula, with an 80 per cent-plus approval rating, typified the feel-good face Brazil showed to the world: he was friends with Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II and could call up Sarkozy or Merkel as easily as Putin or Hugo Chávez.
Six years later the 72-year-old’s situation is unrecognisable. He is accused of masterminding the largest bribery scheme in Brazilian history and faces a possible prison sentence. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, has been impeached and one of the few world leaders he still has on speed dial is the autocratic president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.
“Sometimes I lie there and wonder, ‘Where did it all go wrong?’” he says, rubbing the wedding ring that sits next to his missing little finger – lost in an accident during his teens. “When I left the presidency I was happy to leave a government with the highest approval rating this country has ever seen. I don’t know if there’s another place in the world that’s had a president who, after eight years, left with a rating like mine.”
Brazil’s fall from grace on the world stage, like that of Luiz da Silva, has been spectacular. During Rousseff’s first term from 2011 to 2014 the government spent unwisely on higher pensions and tax breaks for favoured industries. Money that had fuelled spending and a generous welfare budget dried up. “If we think of money like water, we know that when there’s less water coming in than going out, the bath will be left empty,” says Lula. “And when it’s empty, we can’t wash.”
At the same time the governing coalition was discredited by a corruption scandal centred on Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company. The euphoria of winning the bid for the 2016 Olympic games wore off as costs overran by €1.6bn and voters took to the streets to demand that Rousseff’s ouster, Michel Temer, direct funds away from snazzy stadiums and towards public services.
Lula says that the solution to the economic crises is credibility. This is, of course, painfully ironic given that this is exactly what he lacks in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. An investigation called Operation Car Wash was launched three years ago and levels a range of allegations at Lula, from influence-peddling to accepting bribes from national companies in exchange for government favours, during his time in office and afterwards. He is also accused of accepting land for his new institute from Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm under investigation, for which he says there is “not a pin” of evidence. Despite all this, 30 per cent of the Brazilian electorate say they would vote for Lula if his name were on the ballot paper. That is almost double the support that any other potential contenders have attracted so far, according to a September 2017 poll. For many his presidency represents a time of abundance when millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty and the Olympic bid was won.
For Brazil’s GDP to grow again, Lula reckons there are a few “ingredients” that must return. “A government needs credibility to convince the private sector to put their money in and increase the productive muscle of Brazil. At the same time society must be able to plan ahead: you can’t go to sleep thinking you’ll have a surprise tomorrow. It was because of this planning, when we governed, that we had a lot of respect internationally.”
There are those who think that sounds a bit rich given that Operation Car Wash is ongoing. “His political credibility is near zero,” says Thiago de Aragão, an analyst at Brasilia-based Arko Advice. But in a political landscape where corruption is a depressing norm, how voters will rank “political credibility” in the 2018 election is unclear.
“Every day I tell my lawyers, ‘I am not above the law’,” says Lula. “I am hopeful – no, I expect – not to go to prison because I’ve proven my innocence.” But it would be a tight timeline for prosecutors to uphold a conviction before the October election. If Lula becomes a sitting president the case would eventually go to a higher court, stuffed with loyalists to the Workers party he founded.
Yet there are new challengers to the political old guard. Jair Bolsonaro, a firebrand former army captain often tipped as the tropical Trump, offers a heavy-handed law-and-order message that taps into a seam of anger and frustration among voters. His son Eduardo runs his electoral campaign. “We are creating a movement,” says Bolsonaro Jr, dressed in a cobalt-blue suit with a handgun clipped onto his belt. “We don’t want to win next year’s race: we want conservatism to return.” His father, Eduardo says, is unlikely to beat a mainstream party candidate but his views are finding traction with Brazilians. There’s also creeping intolerance towards same-sex unions and minority groups, the sort of prejudice that Brazil has long made strides to stamp out.
The matter of urban violence will define the upcoming presidential race. Eduardo Bolsonaro says 60,000 women in Brazil last year were attacked; his solution is that they, like him, should carry guns. Murders in the city of Rio and the surrounding state are up 16 per cent this year and gang wars rage. Many Brazilians say they would vote for an authoritarian candidate if it meant they would be safer. This attitude, coupled with frustration at a political class seen as self-serving, has catapulted Bolsonaro to second place in the polls.
For Lula the solution to crime is not just more investment in the police, as rightwingers propose. “We must change the conditions people are living in,” he says. “This cultural broth, leaving society nervous, tense and infuriated by everything, is a breeding ground for violence. The solution is that employment returns and income returns.”
Lula is a master of narrative and his answers often start with a story. For example, he recounts how he first learnt economics from an illiterate woman who looked after the household budget, and tells of how the International Monetary Fund president wept with delight at Brazil’s financial rally. “When I first became president, Brazil was seen internationally with the same level of distrust it is today. No one believed Brazil could be turned around.”
For all the allegations, Lula did oversee a period of optimism. Brazil became a protagonist on the world stage. Its house was in order and its image, both at home and abroad, was much sunnier. But, he points out, national TV networks are still looking for their presidential candidate and he knows it won’t necessarily be his face that they blast across their screens.
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