Next year, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva might be either the president of Brazil or in prison. At 71-years-old, the famous politician appears to be at a major crossroad that could forever shape his legacy. A two-term president, who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2011, Lula da Silva was once one of the most popular politicians in the world. Time listed the Brazilian president in its 2010 list of The 100 Most Influential People, while then-president Barack Obama heralded Lula as the “most popular politician on earth.”
But now, seven years since his term ended in 2010, Lula finds himself in an interesting position. On one hand, the former president has been sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison on corruption and money laundering charges. Yes, this may seem damning, but on the other hand, he is the frontrunner in next year’s national election, leading substantially in the presidential polls. In June, despite his criminal investigation, the politician held 30 percent of first-round voter intention, twice the percentage of the next two most popular candidates.
The question is whether or not Lula can survive what may be the final blow to his hopes of reclaiming the presidency. The New Yorker has called Lula’s sentencing “The Most Important Criminal Conviction in Brazil’s History.” Lula da Silva is the first Brazilian president to be convicted of corruption.
Lula da Silva was once one of the most popular politicians in the world. Time listed the Brazilian president in its 2010 list of The 100 Most Influential People, while then-president Barack Obama heralded Lula as the “most popular politician on earth.”
The decision was made in mid-June and is easily the most significant in Brazil’s never-ending corruption scandal unearthed by Operation Car Wash. However, Lula will be appealing the sentence as he runs for president, and until the appeal is resolved, the politician will remain a free man. If the sentence is upheld, not only will he become ineligible for the presidency, the former president will go to prison. The once-adored president is all in.
As weird and complicated as Lula’s precarious situation is, it does seem fitting for a politician with his unique story. The first president to grow up in poverty, Lula da Silva captured the country’s imagination as the underdog, someone who could truly relate to the working class. Possessing only a fourth-grade education, Lula sold peanuts and shined shoes instead of going to school. As a teenager he worked in an auto-parts factory, losing his left pinky finger while on the job. Later, at age 30, he became president of the Metalworkers’ Union, achieving national recognition for his role in leading widespread workers strikes against Brazil’s military dictatorship. Five years later in 1980, Lula helped found the Workers’ Party, a radical political movement aiming to give power to the people.
A story of perseverance, Lula ran for president three times before successfully winning the national election in 2002. The fourth-grade educated politician’s promise to fight corruption and poverty resonated with the Brazilian population and the unconventional politician won a landslide victory that made history. The first leftist to be elected president of Brazil, Lula served as hope for a country struggling with dangerous inequality and corruption.
Possessing only a fourth-grade education, Lula sold peanuts and shined shoes instead of going to school. As a teenager he worked in an auto-parts factory, losing his left pinky finger while on the job.
And by and large, Lula’s presidency was well-received. The working-class president achieved reelection in 2006 in another decisive victory despite a major corruption scandal the year before. The mensalão scandal, involving a congressional vote-buying scheme used by the Workers’ Party resulted in the resignation and conviction of numerous key aides, but Lula escaped virtually untouched. The president walked away without being publicly implicated and with a second term on his hands.
Lula left office after his two terms with enormous popularity. With an 87 percent personal approval rating in the last month of his presidency, Brazil’s most popular president was able to use his clout to help elect fellow Workers’ Party member Dilma Rousseff as his successor. Lula had overseen Brazil during a period of major economic growth as a result of the commodities boom and successfully rode this wave of economic good fortune. Keeping true to his commitment to the working class, Lula implemented social and economic policies that chipped away at the country’s massive inequality. Through social welfare programs like Bolsa Familia, 36 million people were pulled out of poverty during Lula’s tenure.
Under Lula, Brazil was the country of the future, an emerging economy on the brink of becoming something more. With this image, the soccer-loving country won the rights to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Lula had captured the hearts of those at home and abroad.
Unfortunately today, Brazil continues to be a country of the future, still far away from the political and economic greatness that it had been predicted to achieve. For now, the country’s prospects shine a lot less bright as the South American nation contends with a struggling economy, stark inequality, and rising concerns of violence. Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor, has since been impeached in a move of political manipulation, while the entire country struggles with a massive corruption scandal that is shaking up Brazil’s politicians and elite.
In the weeks leading up to the vote Michel Temer, Brazil’s current president, engaged in expert political maneuvering to guarantee that he not stand trial. The president spent millions in federal money for congressional projects in key districts, likely to win support from important lawmakers.
Michel Temer, Brazil’s current president who replaced Rousseff after her impeachment, is himself implicated in the Operation Car Wash scandal. On August 2, the struggling president avoided standing trial on corruption charges after Brazilian lawmakers voted not to proceed with the prosecution. The conservative president had been charged with corruption after being accused of receiving a $152,000 bribe from wealthy Brazilian businessman, Joesley Batista. The hefty sum is part of a $12 million bribe he allegedly received. Needing the support of just one-third of Congress, Temer received the necessary votes with 263 of the 513 deputies supporting him. Had the president not received the required votes, he would have been suspended for 180 days and then put on trial by the Supreme Court. Temer’s small victory was expected, but as prosecutors plan to stagger their indictments against the president, lawmakers will have to vote again and again, testing their loyalty to the weathered president.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Temer engaged in expert political maneuvering to guarantee that he not stand trial. The president spent millions in federal money for congressional projects in key districts, likely to win support from important lawmakers. According to Contas Abertas (Open Accounts), a government watchdog nonprofit, the Temer administration awarded over $1.3 billion in federal funds in the months of June and July. Temer’s spending represents an unusually high amount, particularly due to the country’s struggling economic conditions and the administration’s supposed commitment to economic austerity.
As the Brazilian president has come under heavy fire this summer, he has used his political power to withstand the oncoming attacks. He has rewarded those who have supported him with important positions and fired those who have broken with him. His newly appointed justice minister disbanded the task force behind Operation Car Wash, the very investigation which continues to uncover allegations linking the president to the scandal. A suspicious maneuver, the Temer administration claims that it merely means that investigators no longer work exclusively on cases relating to Operation Car Wash, but that the larger investigation will continue. Prosecutors involved with Operation Car Wash say differently, claiming that it is a clear move to end the incriminating investigation.
If anyone knows overcoming obstacles, it is Lula da Silva. The popular president defied Brazilian history and went from poverty to the presidency.
In the meantime, Temer will continue to fend off allegations connecting him to the scandal. The embattled president is expected to face an obstruction of justice charge in the upcoming weeks. If this occurs, Congress will again have to vote on whether or not to proceed with the new charges. As lawmakers loyal to the president are tested, Temer’s allies will have to decide whether they would like to risk their political futures by sticking with the president. According to a poll conducted in late July, over 80 percent of Brazilians wanted Temer to be suspended and put on trial; 73 percent responded that lawmakers voting with Temer did not deserve reelection. Lawmakers decisions regarding their continued support for the struggling president could have real effects as all congressional seats are up for election next year.
Brazil presents an interesting scenario. One politician, once revered and adored, continues his charge to reclaim the presidency while facing a 9.5-year prison sentence. The other, a struggling president, maneuvers his way around allegations as he continues to try to salvage what is left of his presidency. Either way, for both, the clock is ticking.
Latest polls put Temer at a 5 percent approval rating, worse than former president Dilma Rousseff at her lowest point in popularity. As the deeply unpopular president continues to vie for support in Congress he faces an uphill battle to finish his presidency. Meanwhile, former president Lula da Silva also finds himself with incredible obstacles ahead. Already sentenced to prison, the presidency seems unthinkable, yet the dogged politician continues. And if anyone knows overcoming obstacles, it is Lula da Silva. The popular president defied Brazilian history and went from poverty to the presidency. But the future of the two remains a mystery. While one strives for the presidency and the other clings to it, it will be interesting to see where the politicians end up a year from now. Both men might very well find themselves behind bars.