Lula Starts to Rekindle Old Magic in Brazil Souring on Bolsonaro

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They came by the dozens in solicitous clusters from the left but also the center and right to a Brasilia hotel suite this month. They smiled and fist-bumped. They tweeted. The man whose attention they were seeking, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, received them, pope-like, surrounded by exhilarated aides.

And after five days, there was little doubt: Lula, the Brazilian shoeshine boy who founded the Workers’ Party, became an epoch-defining, wildly popular president, then was jailed for corruption and cleared by the supreme court, is emerging as the main challenger to President Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s election.

“If you don’t have a dog, you hunt with a cat,” observed Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an establishment figure and former president, in an interview with Valor Economico newspaper, explaining his unexpected support for Lula, his longtime political adversary, if he’s the best way to defeat the incumbent. “I don’t know if the Workers’ Party represents the future of Brazil but I have no enthusiasm for the future that Bolsonaro represents.”

As the country of 212 million reels from the death toll and upheaval caused by Covid, driving down Bolsonaro’s approval to 24%, interviews with a dozen political leaders indicate that Lula, who was president from 2003 through 2010, is rapidly uniting a vast chunk of the political spectrum around his expected candidacy.

Lula Starts to Rekindle Old Magic in Brazil Souring on Bolsonaro

As his Workers’ Party president, Gleisi Hoffmann, said in an interview, after pressing for more vaccines and aid to the poor, “Our main role is to organize as many forces as possible to face the greatest evil that is Bolsonaro.”

Few things are as volatile as the political mood in Brazil, all the more so in a pandemic. The election is 17 months away, Lula is 75 and a cancer survivor, and Bolsonaro, for all his difficulties, is a skilled operative with a loyal following. Moreover, Lula hasn’t actually announced that he’s running.

But watching him this month in Brasilia, accompanied by his sociologist fiancee, known to all simply as Janja, as he tweeted endlessly and dined with leaders and diplomats and made clear he is exercising to remain fit, left a clear impression. Once the high court tossed out his conviction, he seemed destined for another run at the highest office.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Lula noted that he runs 9 kilometers daily “to get his legs ready to fix the country's problems.” Then he added, “I'll be 77 by [next year’s election]. I thought that was old. But then I saw Biden win the elections at 78 and said, ‘Well, I’m a boy compared to Biden so perhaps I’ll be alright.’” 

Before the court’s March decision, confirmed last month, allies were searching for a candidate to face Bolsonaro. Now nearly everyone on the left, including the Socialism and Liberty Party, or PSOL, is talking about supporting Lula. PSOL was created by a group that broke with Lula in 2003.

“We are heading toward a polarization between the far right and Lula, with everything that the former president represents,” said Chico Alencar, a senior member of PSOL. “Lula is the only one with a real chance to defeat Bolsonaro.”

Flavio Dino, governor of Maranhao and a senior communist party member, agreed, saying, “The former president is a reference point in Brazilian politics,” and his candidacy reinforces a tendency for the left to join together now.

Lula Starts to Rekindle Old Magic in Brazil Souring on Bolsonaro

The only leftist party so far not talking to Lula is the one of Ciro Gomes who came in third in 2018 when Bolsonaro defeated the Workers’ Party candidate to win.

Lula is also negotiating with centrist parties that currently back Bolsonaro in congress but tend to align themselves with whoever is in power. While such dealings are often volatile and come at a price, they show those parties are bracing for the possibility that the former president may win. 

He’s even discussed a deal with the party of former President Michel Temer which played a key role in the 2016 impeachment of Lula’s ally and successor, Dilma Rousseff. Other opponents who’ve met with Lula in recent days include the former head of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia, a visceral foe of his government, and Cardoso himself, with whom he had lunch on Thursday to discuss “democracy and the Bolsonaro government's neglect in facing the pandemic.”

Part of what is happening is a lack of alternatives. Lula, whose presidency coincided with a commodity boom and pulled millions from poverty, polls well, at more than 40%. Other possible candidates, such as Joao Doria, the Sao Paulo governor, and Sergio Moro, the former anti-corruption judge, are at about 10%.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro, a former army captain who’s frequently compared to Donald Trump and took office in 2019, is in trouble. His popularity briefly soared last year from the Covid emergency aid. As the handouts became more modest this year, his numbers fell. According to an opinion poll by Exame/Ideia published on Friday, Lula would beat the president 45% to 37% in a runoff. Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Brazilians.

Asked about Lula’s challenge to him, Bolsonaro’s office declined to comment.

The president could extend the cash handouts even if it interferes with Economy Minister Paulo Guedes’ fiscal measures. At the same time, Bolsonaro’s strategy has been to get congress to approve conservative measures to keep his ideological base mobilized. That may only help his expected opponent in what appears likely to be the most polarizing election in decades.

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