Brazil's Eternal Love-Hate Relationship With Lula

A court has upheld corruption charges against the former Brazilian president. Will it stop him from seeking to return to the presidency? He may get support from some surprising places.

Lula in Sao Paulo on Jan. 25
Lula in Sao Paulo on Jan. 25

The crucial court decision just issued in Porto Alegre in Brazil — upholding a corruption conviction against the former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva — was the worst, and possibly definitive, obstacle to Lula's presidential aspirations and political career. But it would be a mistake to suppose that this setback affects only the Workers Party (PT) leader. A sign of what is at stake here is that the entire Brazilian political class, including President Michel Temer, may be thinking that the former leader should not be blocked from running in October's presidential elections. Those entertaining such an idea, often figures with close ties to business interests, argue in public at least that Lula must be defeated at the polls, to avoid his myth and a potential political martyrdom spreading more than it already has.

But Lula is ahead in all the polls. So when people say he should be allowed to run, it also goes to suggest an acceptance of his possible victory. In that context, judicial objections are peanuts in terms of importance. In a country where corruption poisons all political circuits and businessmen, the assault on Lula is also a political pretext that may or may not suit the leaders now suggesting that his candidacy be given the green light.

The economy was "predictable" under Lula.

There are objective interests behind this chorus. The current Finance Minister Enrique Meirelles, as our Brazil correspondent has noted, explained from the current summit in Davos that the former president retains strong support among Brazilians who recall how the middle class grew and the economy was "predictable" under Lula. It was a time when the U.S. President Barack Obama praised Brazil's president as an undoubted leader and when Brazil's GDP exceeded the United Kingdom's. Meirelles, a liberal economist and former CEO of the Bank of Boston, was president of the Central Bank throughout Lula's term in office. The finance minister then was Antonio Palocci, another free market figure close to Lula.

Is Lula what he suggests, or something else in political and economic terms? Is he really the leftist leader his supporters proclaim, or an opportunist who uses that discourse to win power and maneuver in another direction once power is assured? There are sectors of the Brazilian establishment convinced that if the judiciary sweeps Lula away, the so-called "Lula effect" will also disappear. That would threaten the progressive social and political agenda Brazil has pursued in past years, which never took the inept and damaging dimensions here that it did in Venezuela or Argentina.

The politicians asking for Lula to be allowed to run represent sectors of the same establishment who fear that other, potential future presidents like the governor of the Sao Paulo state, Geraldo Alckmin, or Sao Paulo's mayor, Joao Doria, would lack enough support to be able to implement economic adjustments without provoking a popular revolt. Lula's PT party, as the opposition, might even fan that fire.

For those sectors, Lula would be the key to containing the masses and defending the adjustments Temer has imposed, which Lula would certainly not overturn. There are precedents for such conduct: When the last socialist president and Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, began her second presidential term, she abruptly turned to economic orthodoxy, and chose a free-market monetarist, Joaquim Levi, as finance minister. She was following Lula's advice. But the structure crashed due to recession, the decline in Chinese demand and certain government errors. When the former president sought to become a kind of makeshift prime minister of the Rousseff government, he was trying to pilot the country's economic adjustment — precisely with the skills he is showing in his bid to regain the presidency.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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