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latin america FORMER PRESIDENT’S CONVICTION UPHELD BY JUDGES

Lula vows presidential run despite court blow

Popular Workers’ Party leader insists he will be on ballot after unanimous ruling adds years to his prison sentence.

Saturday 27 January, 2018
Former Brazil president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva rubs his forehead during a meeting with the executive members of the Workers’ Party (PT), in São Paulo on Thursday.
Former Brazil president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva rubs his forehead during a meeting with the executive members of the Workers’ Party (PT), in São Paulo on Thursday. Foto:AP/ANDRE PENNER.

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It was standing-room-only in the 1,000-seat auditorium in São Paulo and the crowd gamely sang along with the performers on stage. But over the course of three hours, the tension built as the crowd grew impatient and repeatedly called for “Lula!” When former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva finally stood up to speak, he held the audience rapt for nearly an hour. Decades after he entered the national stage, the 72-year-old is still a magnetic figure and a serious candidate for the presidency despite a corruption conviction, which was unanimously upheld on appeal Wednesday.

The master politician used those legal woes to frame his candidacy as a struggle against elites who want to crush his leftleaning Workers’ Party (PT), which vows to help the poor. “They sold the idea to the people that Brazil had caught a disease, a serious disease called the Workers’ Party and they needed to get rid of this sickness,” he said, referring to his detractors. “They anaesthetised Brazilian society … only now people are waking up from the anaesthesia!” Lula has been convicted of corruption, faces graft charges in six other cases, might be barred from running in the October vote and bears some responsibility for the country’s recent economic collapse.

But he has a deft human touch, is a gifted public speaker with an inspiring rags-to-riches story, and he oversaw one of the largest expansions of Brazil’s economy. Whether they despise or adore him, many Brazilians say his appeal lies in how helped the impoverished masses.

“If they don’t kill him and they don’t declare him ineligible, he will win,” said Washington Balbino da Silva, a 43-year-old doorman in São Paulo who used to support Lula but says he became disillusioned after several corruption charges were levleled. “He did lots for the poor.” The most recent Datafolha poll, conducted in the final days of November, showed da Silva would lead in a first round of voting in the October election, with 36 or 37 percent of the vote.

In all potential second-round scenarios, he would win. In fact, since his conviction in July, his poll numbers have improved. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

‘IT DOESN’T MATTER’

Lula’s failed legal appeal Wednesday should make him ineligible to run for office under Brazilian law, but the former president still has several avenues for appeal and ultimately the country’s electoral court makes decisions about candidacies.

The former president’s power is such that it seems he will define the presidential race, whether in or out. “It doesn’t matter if he’s convicted, if he’s in jail, if he’s in his house, if he’s just in the beginning of the election and then he must step down for another candidate; he will definitely be a piece in this puzzle,” said Vitor Oliveira, director of analysis at Pulso Publico, a political consulting firm.

The cult of Lula, as da Silva is universally known in Brazil, begins with his compelling personal history, which could be a metaphor for Brazil’s own transformation in recent decades from poor backwater to economic and political powerhouse. Born in a two-room house with a dirt floor and no bathroom, he started work at seven and got a factory job at 14. He first came to national attention as a firebrand union leader who stood up to the 1964-1985 military government. He went on to found the PT and won the presidency in 2002.

The symbolism of his win cannot be overstated: Brazil suffers from gaping inequality and there is little upward economic mobility for the poor and working classes. Political advancement might be even more unattainable since Brazil has long been ruled by an entrenched elite, and many of today’s politicians are the descendants of people who have held power since colonial times. Many are seen as ignorant of and uninterested in the daily struggles of the majority of Brazilians. Lula’s wild rise did not stop there. His time in office coincided with a global commodities boom that led to robust economic growth. While he cannot take exclusive credit for the country’s phenomenal economic success, he is credited with sharing those gains with members of Brazil’s lower classes.

Inequality, which was already falling when he took office, continued to plummet on his watch through programmes which gave poor households money for food, school and health expenses. He left office with an 87 percent approval rating and former US president Barack Obama once called him “the most popular politician on Earth.”.

That popularity, despite the revelations that have emerged in Brazil’s massive “Car Wash” (Lava Jato) probe, has for the most part remained. While some who continue to support Lula the charges against him. “These things are quickly forgotten,” said Caroline Marques, a 22-year-old graphic designer, who says she still supports da Silva. “They’re all thieves, but he’s the lesser evil.”

‘NO PLAN B’

On Thursday, a day after the corruption conviction against him was upheld, Lula insisted that he’ll be on October’s presidential ballot, though he also appeared to acknowledge that he could be sidelined. The comments to high-ranking members of the PT underscored the conundrum facing the party that governed Brazil between 2003 and 2016: its best chance of winning the presidency rests with Lula, but the once wildly popular former leader may ultimately be ineligible or even jailed.

His chances went down sharply after the appellate court upheld a graft conviction against him and increased the sentence to more than 12 years. “I hope this candidacy does not depend on Lula,” the former leader told Thursday’s meeting, hinting that others in the PT must be ready to carry forward its vision for the country. “You have to put the Brazilian people in motion.” Party stalwarts at Thursday’s meeting, however, doubled down on their insistence that Lula run. “There is no plan B to [his] candidacy,” said party chair Gleisi Hoffmann. “Lula is plan A to Z.” The party intends to register him on August 15, the last day to do so – even if he is in jail. Lula knows the fight is on. “While this heart still beats, and while these eyes still see and while this brain still thinks, the struggle is not over,” he promised on Wednesday.  


Macri praises Lula ruling, as reaction sweeps across Latin America. Shockwaves rippled throughout Latin America this week after the Brazil Judiciary upheld the conviction of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on charges of corruption and money-laundering, a move that places the former president’s hopes of reelection in jeopardy. President Mauricio Macri, speaking alongside World Economic Forum President Børge Brende in Davos on Thursday, broke his silence to celebrate the decision and encourage further investigation in order to “know the truth.”

“What Brazil has done is extraordinary with respect to the future, even though meanwhile it’s provoked a great crisis,” Macri said.

In contrast, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner expressed her support of Lula on social media, tweeting: “We stand with Lula and the people of Brazil. #JusticiaPorLula.” Current Brazil President Michel Temer requested his Cabinet ministers make no public comments, fearing that any praise may lead to accusations from Lula of a targeted campaign against him. In an interview to Folha de S. Paulo on January 18, Temer reiterated that he wouldn’t want Lula removed from the election, but instead would like him to continue running for president.

Lula has also received support from popular figures and politicians across Latin America. Football legend Diego Maradona expressed his support on Facebook by posting a photo of a jersey emblazoned with Lula’s name and the caption, “Dear Lula, the Diego is with you.” Bolivian President Evo Morales also tweeted out words of solidarity for his close ally. “Unjustly sentenced, our brother Lula da Silva is a victim of a conspiracy that seeks to impede him from being candidate and winning the elections with the support of the public to whom he dedicated himself his whole life.”

Lula is expected to appeal the decision to uphold the conviction.


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