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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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