On Wednesday morning, two days after a Supreme Court justice annulled his criminal convictions and restored his political rights, Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, returned to where his career began: the ABC metalworkers union headquarters. It was there, in greater São Paulo’s industrial belt in the late 1970s, that Lula led a series of general strikes demanding higher wages and the right to freely unionize in defiance of the military dictatorship that later imprisoned him. It was also in that stronghold that 40 years later, in 2018, a mass of Lula’s supporters surrounded the building and pushed against gates, trying in vain to prevent the founder of the democratic socialist Workers’ Party, who ruled Brazil from 2003 through 2010, from turning himself in to the police. “There’s no point in trying to end my ideas,” he told a mournful crowd before surrendering. “They’re lingering in the air and you can’t arrest them.”
The unexpected decision by Justice Edson Fachin, which cleared the path for Lula to make a comeback and potentially challenge a weakened President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 election, instantly sent the country into a frenzy. In his ruling, Fachin found that the court in the southern city of Curitiba that convicted Lula in 2017 lacked jurisdiction to judge cases involving alleged corruption and money laundering as part of a now-disbanded corruption probe known as Operation Car Wash. The judge also ordered a retrial by a federal court in the country’s capital.
Lula, who ended his second term with an 87 percent approval rating and was once called “the most popular politician on earth” by Barack Obama, served 580 days in prison before his release under a November 2019 Supreme Court order determining that prison sentences should only be served after all chances of appeal were exhausted. Because of a law known as “Clean Slate” that prohibits candidates from running for office if they have criminal convictions upheld on appeal, he was disqualified from the 2018 race that elected Bolsonaro. The former president and his defense team’s claims that the convictions were politically motivated were bolstered after leaked conversations published by the Intercept raised questions about the integrity of former Judge Sérgio Moro—later appointed Bolsonaro’s minister of justice—and the anti-corruption crusade he led.
“I was a victim of the biggest judicial lie in 500 years,” Lula said Wednesday, with a large picture projected behind him showing a web of raised arms lifting him off the ground. “So if there is a Brazilian that has reason to hold many, deep grudges, it’s me. But I do not. The suffering the poor people are going through in this country is infinitely worse than any crime they committed against me.” Wearing a red mask featuring his party’s star logo, Lula refrained from announcing official plans to run for president, but forcefully antagonized Bolsonaro and his deadly and dismissive handling of a raging pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 270,000 Brazilians. “This country has no government,” Lula said. In doing so, he reminded even some of his harshest critics not only of the qualities that endeared him to the nation a decade ago—chiefly charisma and rhetorical mastery—but also of what leadership guided by common sense and basic humanity looks like. “We were getting used to truculence, lack of empathy, unrestrained speech. Lula put things back in place,” a conservative commentator wrote.
Still, the dominant narrative of coverage in the past few days, both within Brazil and abroad, has been centered on the country’s potentially cataclysmic polarization. The mere possibility of Lula as a candidate—and a popular one at that—was enough to set off headlines highlighting investor woes, warning against a diversion from the public health crisis and the potential that his longtime nemesis’s return could further radicalize Bolsonaro (it’s hard to imagine how).
It felt like a reenactment of the 2018 election—when newspaper editorials and political pundits perpetuated a false equivalence between the Workers’ Party candidate, Lula’s former minister of education and former mayor of São Paulo Fernando Haddad, and Bolsonaro, a far-right demagogue who’s openly nostalgic about the dictatorship. Despite the ever-worsening tragedy engulfing Brazil, the self-serving economic elite and segments of the media insist on falsely painting Lula and Bolsonaro as two equally dreadful sides of the same coin. Brazilians, they either imply or inexcusably affirm, are stuck with an impossible choice: two forms of extremism.
“From a descriptive point of view, there is a polarization,” Rafael R. Ioris, associate professor of Latin American history at the University of Denver, told me, adding that one candidate stands for the rule of law and can restore normality, while the other is an anti-system authoritarian who militarizes politics and erodes institutions. “That does not mean that they are two equidistant poles, unless it’s in the sense of civilization versus barbarism.”
Others are pushing back against the narrative. Bolsonaro is “not a counterpoint to Workers’ Party ‘leftism,’ ” journalist Vinicius Torres Freire wrote in an op-ed for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. On Twitter, the anthropologist Isabela Kalil said, “What a relief to know that we will be haunted by polarization again, because until now it was 7-to-1 for fascism.” A former House speaker noted, “You don’t have to like Lula to understand how he’s different from Bolsonaro.”
As president, Lula helped lift millions of people out of poverty and hunger and elevated Brazil’s profile as one of the world’s largest economies during a global commodities boom. His ally, Dilma Rousseff, was elected to succeed him in 2010. But four years later, during Rousseff’s second term, a sweeping investigation into the state oil company Petrobras and overpriced contracts awarded to construction firms began. Operation Car Wash eventually linked Lula and the Workers’ Party, as well as politicians of a dozen other parties, with businesspeople in an intricate, cross-border corruption scheme. Lula was charged with and found guilty of receiving bribes in the form of a beachfront apartment and renovations to a country house.
At 75, the former union leader who presided over some of Brazil’s most prosperous but also most scandal-tinged years is by no means a unanimously popular figure today. Recent polls suggest that while half of surveyed voters would at least consider casting a ballot for Lula, 44 percent would never consider it. He has represented many things to many people: a warrior, the devil, a thief, “my man.” The opening shots of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy illustrate well the clashing passions and hopes for the country that his legacy mobilizes: On the one hand, supporters say Lula’s generous social programs allowed them to put food on the table and send their children to university for the first time; on the other, detractors accuse his government of “racist” quotas against white people and rank fighting corruption as the main priority. In his speech following the annulment of his convictions, Lula spoke to both sides: “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m radical because I want to go to the root of this country’s problems.”
Polarization in Brazil runs much deeper. It is, to a certain extent, an expression of class warfare that, Ioris says, the wealthy and the middle class have bought into a Cold War–like narrative in which the Workers’ Party represents a communist threat, and that they have been willing to embrace a leader like Bolsonaro who, similar to Donald Trump, “inflates and stimulates a kind of rage and racism that, before, people tried to hide.”
“The discourse has gotten very emotional and angry,” he says. “The social fabric has been torn, and rebuilding it might take almost like a therapeutic work, some kind of catharsis or shock therapy, and even a certain grief.”