On Sunday, Brazil’s top electoral court ruled that “Lula”, former president Luiz Inácio da Silva, cannot run in the presidential election this October. He served two terms as president (2003-2011), he dutifully waited out the following two terms, and his Workers’ Party (PT) has nominated him for the presidency again.
Opinion polls give him 39% support, more than twice as much as any other candidate. However, Lula is in jail in the southern city of Curitiba, serving a twelve-year sentence for corruption, and he is not getting out any time soon.
The bad news is that he is probably guilty, perhaps not of the specific offence he has already been convicted for, but of four other charges of money laundering, influence peddling and obstruction of justice that are still pending.
Lula’s current conviction rests on little more than the word of an executive of a giant construction company, who claims he gave Lula a penthouse apartment in a seaside resort town in return for a lucrative contract with the state-owned oil company Petrobras. The executive was facing corruption charges himself, and made the accusation as part of a plea bargain.
There are no documents linking Lula or his late wife to the house, nor is there any evidence that they ever spent any time there. This case went to trial first only because it suggested that Lula had sold out for personal advantage. He probably did not.
But there is plenty of evidence that Lula engaged in other kinds of dodgy fund-raising, not to benefit himself, but to buy the cooperation of other parties in Brazil's congress, where there was a plethora of small parties and his PT never had a majority. This was illegal, but it was perfectly Brazilian normal political practice when he became president in 2003.
So Lula appointed PT members to senior executive roles in Petrobras and other state-owned companies. They demanded kickbacks from companies that sought contracts with Petrobras and the others, and handed the money over to the PT, which handed much of it on to smaller parties in Congress in return for their votes.
That’s how Lula pushed through radical measures like the “bolsa familial”, a regular payment to poor Brazilians, provided that their children had an 85 per cent attendance record at school and had received all their vaccinations, that lifted 35 million people out of poverty.
Brazil's economy boomed, and when he left office in 2011 with an 83 per cent approval rating, Brazilians were both richer and more equal than ever before.
His chosen successor Dilma Rousseff won the election, but then world commodity prices collapsed, the Brazilian economy tanked and unemployment soared. She squeaked back into office in the 2015 election, but was impeached in 2016 for misrepresenting the scale of the deficit. It was a trivial offence, but she was so unpopular by then that nobody much missed her.
Her vice president, Michel Temer, a deeply corrupt politician from another political party, has served out the rest of her term, but he will surely be arrested too if he loses the protection of holding a high political office. In fact, half the current members of congress would be arrested if they lost their seats. The reason for that is a political cleansing operation called Lava Jato (Car Wash).
The past eight years have been miserable for Brazilians both economically and politically, but Operation Car Wash has offered real hope for the future. It’s a huge police and judicial operation, run out of the city of Curitiba, called the “London of Brazil” because it is seen as incorruptible, which targets both corrupt politicians and the businessmen who buy them up.
The irony, for Lula, is that Car Wash owes its success to two key reforms of Dilma Rousseff’s government. One was to make evidence obtained through plea-bargaining acceptable in the courts. The other was to appoint a truly independent attorney general and independent judges and prosecutors, who duly sent Lula to jail even though they may share his politics.
“She always underestimated Car Wash,” said Delcidio do Amaral, the PT’s former leader in the federal senate, now under house arrest and plea-bargaining hard, “because she thought it would reach everyone but her. She thought it would make her stronger.” Instead, it has destroyed Lula.
So what happens now? The PT has ten days to substitute Fernando Haddad, Lula’s choice and a former mayor of Sao Paulo, as the Workers’ Party candidate for the presidency in the election on 7 October, but it’s unlikely that he can win all the votes that would have gone to Lula, which may leave the road open for a dark-horse candidate like Jair Bolsonaro, a born-again would-be Trump who disparages women, blacks and gays. The road to hell, or at least somewhere quite unpleasant, is often paved with good intentions.
By Gwynne Dyer