Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva moved closer to a phoenix-like political revival on Monday when a Supreme Court judge quashed convictions against him on the basis that evidence of his involvement in a corruption scheme involving Petrobras contracts was inherently unreliable.

The implications of the ruling include the growing possibility that the staunchly socialist Lula will challenge Brazil’s far right incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro in elections due to be held in October next year.


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Persona matters

Christian Lynch, a Rio-based political scientist, said Lula’s chances of winning the election depend on the “persona” he adopts, arguing that an uncompromising socialist stance resulted in several past defeats, while the “love and peace” persona cultivated by marketing experts coincided with his 2002 victory and a landslide second term in 2011.

“What will happen in the election next year? The answer is simple. It depends on the clothes that Lula chooses to wear. If it is the Lula of 1989, Bolsonaro will win. If it is the Lula of 2002, Bolsonaro will lose,” Lynch tweeted.

Lula’s two terms in office were a time of strong commodities-fuelled economic growth and poverty reduction, but also saw a resurgence of resource nationalism and rampant corruption within Petrobras and its suppliers, exposed by the infamous Car Wash graft probe, launched in the state of Parana.

Lula’s defenders say no Brazilian president has been able to govern in the country's fragmented Congress without deal-making, and argue the Workers Party-led administration was co-opted by a long-established system of patronage

Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, won office in 2014, but a reduced majority, growing economic problems and the corruption scandal left her vulnerable to an impeachment vote, which went against her.

Lula, now 75, would have sought a third term in 2018 but he was jailed on controversial corruption charges, opening the way for Bolsonaro’s landslide victory.

Rights stripped

Lula was released from prison in November 2019 but was barred from seeking election, until Judge Edson Fauchin’s ruled otherwise this week.

The Supreme Court was expected to schedule a plenary ruling on whether some of the Car Wash cases judged by former judge Sergio Moro should be annulled.

Allegations of political bias and collusion have been corroborated by leaked conversations between Parana-based Moro and prosecutors in the state.

On the other hand, Lula’s convictions could yet be reinstated and there could even be new prosecutions in an unpredictable legal system.

'Back in the game'

Yet Valor Economico, Brazil’s leading business daily, gave voice to popular interpretation: “Lula is back in the game,” the newspaper declared.

The prospect of a strong Lula bid for the presidency next year did not go down well in the business sector, despite widespread disappointment with Bolsonaro’s performance on the economy and his idiosyncratic approach to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Moderate opinion in Brazil favours a more centrist candidate, able to repeat the economic successes of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, whose social democratic administrations stabilised the economy in the 1990s.

Names in the mix include the social democratic governors of Rio Grande do Sul and Sao Paulo — respectively, Eduardo Leite and Joao Doria — as well as television personality Luciano Huck, and Bolsonaro’s former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta.

"For Bolsonaro, Fachin’s decision is a welcome development. It creates a more polarised environment between him and Lula, making it harder for a centrist candidate to be competitive in 2022," commented the Eurasia risk consultancy in a research note.

"But it probably reinforces a larger point: pundits have already been systematically under-appreciating the competitiveness of the left for next year’s election. Lula’s bid reinforces such an assessment.”