Brazil ex-leader Lula’s future on a knife edge


People take part in a demonstration in defence of democracy and the right of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (PT) to be a candidate in the next national elections, in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil on January 13, 2018.Image copyright
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Supporters of Lula are confident the judges will decide in his favour

All eyes are on the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre this week where judges are hearing an appeal against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s sentence of almost 10 years in prison for corruption and money laundering. The decision could dictate the future of the country, as the BBC’s South America correspondent Katy Watson reports.

While nobody knows which way the judges are going to rule, one thing is clear: whatever their decision on Wednesday, Brazil will be divided.

Just nine months ahead of what many describe as the most uncertain presidential election in Brazil in decades, the political fragility in this country is clear.

Socialist icon or crooked politician?

It has been a fall from grace for Lula. He rose to power condemning corrupt politics and promised he would be different when he became president in 2003.

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When Lula was sworn in as president in 2003 he promised to do things differently

But corruption scandals plagued him during his eight years in power. In 2005, what is known as the Mensalao scandal nearly cost him his job.

Nevertheless, he left office in 2011 with record approval ratings.

But then came Operation Car Wash.

The country’s biggest ever corruption investigation started with the state-owned oil company Petrobras but its focus spread as it uncovered more and more threads of the complex web of corruption.

Some of Brazil’s biggest business leaders and politicians have now been implicated, including current President Michel Temer and former presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff.

Lula’s sentence for corruption is just one of several cases against the former leader.

While the appeal is under way, Lula has remained free and opinion polls suggest he is the front runner in the race to be elected president in October.

If the judges sitting in the Regional Federal Tribunal 4 (TRF-4) decide on Wednesday to uphold the original sentence, Lula is likely to appeal against it in a higher court but his presidential ambitions will be curtailed nevertheless.

Confident supporters

In the run-up to the appeal, his supporters have been gathering to garner support. Their chants of “Lula, warrior for the Brazilian people” are getting louder.

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Supporters of ex-President Lula have been marching in Porto Alegre ahead of the appeal

They are confident he will be let off as the charges, in their view, are purely political

They argue that Lula is a man who understands Brazil’s class struggle and the racism and inequality in the country. For them, he is the only person who can protect the people.

Members of Lula’s Workers’ Party are not contemplating any other scenario than Lula winning the appeal, local party leader Cleiton Leite Coutinho says.

“The Workers’ Party does not have a plan B, C or D today, our plan is called Luiz Ignacio da Silva,” he says at an event in Sao Bernardo do Campo, the place Lula calls home.

“Either Lula is a candidate, or we are going out on the streets, we will not accept any intrusion into Brazil’s democracy.”

Deep divisions

But for every Lula fan out there, there are also critics.

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Critics of ex-President Lula have also taken to the streets

Tome Abrach is one of the leaders of Nas Ruas (In the streets), the political movement which played a key role in the demonstrations demanding the ousting of Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached 2016 for illegally manipulating budget accounts.

The owner of a construction business, Mr Abrach feels Lula and his party are a symbol of everything that is wrong with Brazilian politics.

He is not a fan of President Temer either but he thinks that sending Lula to prison would be a good way for Brazil to turn over a new political leaf.

“We are sick and tired of Brazil’s political class, we can’t take it any more,” he says.

“We have to gather together our Brazilian blood and spirit, we need to believe in Brazil and do our part. We just need people of integrity who know how to run our nation the way it deserves.”

Time for a change

Sales analyst Guilherme Henrique Paublo is a little less angry.

He was given funding to go to university where he studied business administration.

He has no doubt that the Workers’ Party initiatives changed his life but he does not feel the need to be loyal to the politician who helped him.

“I think today we’re at a point where demands have changed,” he says.

“Of the options we have today as candidates, Lula represents a model of politics in Brazil that we’ve already seen. An old model that has already been proven as outdated, bankrupt and compromised by corruption.”

Moving on

Mr Paublo’s viewpoint is not one shared by Workers’ Party leader Gleisi Hoffmann.

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Gleisi Hoffmann says the Workers’ Party is sticking by Lula

“You have to understand that Lula is a leader, his was a historic leadership, he was ahead of his time, so he will always be new,” she says.

“He was, for Brazil, hugely innovative and if he is president again, he will continue to be so. He knows how to govern Brazil and importance of governing for poor people.”

It is of course, up to the judges to decide Lula’s fate but Ms Hoffmann is adamant that if the decision goes against him, the backlash will be violent.

“Lula will not be arrested, for Lula to be arrested, people will have to be killed,” says Ms Hoffmann.

“They’re going to have to kill us, and kill Lula. It will not be peaceful.”

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