Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has excoriated Jair Bolsonaro’s “moronic” and bungling response to the coronavirus pandemic, in a stirring and potentially historic address widely seen as the start of a bid to wrestle the presidency back from his far-right nemesis.
The veteran leftist, who led Latin America’s top economy through some of the brightest years in its modern history, was catapulted back onto the frontline of Brazilian politics on Monday by the surprise decision to quash the corruption convictions that scuppered his bid to reclaim the presidency in 2018. On Tuesday a supreme court judge branded the anti-corruption operation that forced Lula from that year’s election “the greatest judicial scandal” in Brazilian history.
Addressing the nation on Wednesday, the 75-year-old stopped short of formally announcing he would challenge Bolsonaro – a rightwing populist who critics accuse of catastrophically mishandling the Covid outbreak – in the 2022 election. But Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2011, left no doubt his political fightback had begun.
“Just think about the madness that is taking hold of this country,” said the Workers’ party (PT) leader, who was barred from running in the 2018 election after being jailed.
“This country is in a state of utter tumult and confusion because there’s no government. I’ll repeat that: this-country-has-no-government,” Lula insisted, blaming Bolsonaro’s ineptitude and denialism for the scale of a Covid crisis which has killed nearly 270,000 Brazilians.
“For the love of God. This virus killed nearly 2,000 people yesterday,” Lula told journalists and supporters at the metalworkers union headquarters in São Bernardo do Campo, the industrial hub where he cut his political teeth in the 1970s.
“Vaccines aren’t about whether you have the money or not,” he said of the Bolsonaro adminstration’s failure to acquire sufficient doses. “They’re about whether you love life or love death.”
Political observers are divided on the impact Lula’s rehabilitation will have on the 2022 election, and his chances of success.
Some, among them Bolsonaro allies, claim Bolsonaro will relish clashing with a leftist he will portray as a radical “red” threat. But Thaís Oyama, the author of a book about Bolsonaro’s tumultuous presidency, claimed the rightwing populist and his backers had been blindsided and discombobulated by Lula’s unexpected return.
“They think this is really bad. It was a complete surprise and they feel shocked and very worried. There was a funereal mood [around Bolsonaro this week],” Oyama said. “It’s the worst thing that could have happened to him right now … It’s caught him flat-footed.”
A poll published on the eve of Monday’s ruling showed 50% of Brazilians might or would definitely vote for Lula at the next election compared to just 38% for Bolsonaro.
Oyama said that in recent months Bolsonaristas had become twitchy about their leader’s re-election chances, with polls suggesting he was losing support because of his Covid-19 reaction.
Bolsonaro would be particularly anxious about shedding working class and poor voters in Brazil’s north-east, where Lula was born and remains a much-loved figure revered for his crusade against poverty. But even members of the economic elite that cheered Bolsonaro’s rise were so disillusioned Oyama thought they might consider switching sides. “Given a choice between Bolsonaro and the devil, I’ll vote for the devil,” one moneyed interlocutor recently told one of the journalist’s contacts.
Christian Lynch, a political scientist from Rio de Janeiro’s State University, agreed Lula’s resurgence was bad news for Bolsonaro.
“Lula governed this country for eight years – and it was the most prosperous period in Brazil’s recent history,” he said, predicting a coronavirus-fuelled economic slump would see many voters seduced by the prospect of returning to those halcyon days of poverty reduction and economic boom.
“Bolsonaro represents rock bottom in the recent history of the Republic and he’s going to have to face the candidate who was its zenith,” Lynch said.
Lula’s comeback is far from universally welcomed. Many conservatives consider him the personification of corruption and economic ineptitude, given the historic recession into which Brazil was plunged under his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff. The recent poll that placed Lula 12 points ahead of Bolsonaro, also showed 44% of Brazilians rejected Lula, although 56% opposed Bolsonaro.
To reconquer some of those voters, Lynch said it was essential Lula positioned himself as a Joe Biden-style “conciliator” who could reunite Brazil and fix its economy after the rancour and mayhem caused by its Donald Trump-admiring incumbent. “He needs to position himself as a leftwing Bonaparte who has come to restore peace and order,” Lynch said.
In his 80-minute address, Lula promised just that – offering a scathing diagnosis of the “evils” inflicted on Brazil by Bolsonaro but also an upbeat vision of the future.
The former president savaged Bolsonaro as a useless “blowhard” who had endangered lives by promoting unproven Covid remedies, questioning the importance of vaccination and vowing not be vaccinated himself. “Do not follow a single moronic decision or the president or the health minister. Get vaccinated,” Lula said.
But he also described a more optimistic path forwards for the country where racism could be “abolished”, the economy boomed, the LGBT community and different faiths were respected, women were not “trampled on” and where “young people can wander around freely without worrying about getting shot”.
“This world is possible, absolutely possible, and that’s why I’m inviting you to struggle,” said Lula, who championed science and wore a face mask to the event, something Bolsonaro has repeatedly failed to do.
Despite being in his eighth decade, Lula signaled he was spoiling for a political fight. “I like to joke that I’ve got the energy of a 30-year-old and the drive of a 20-year-old – maybe that’s why I haven’t been vaccinated yet,” he quipped.
Gaspard Estrada, a Brazil specialist from the Paris Institute of Political Studies, called Lula’s rebound a positive development for those aghast at Brazil’s illiberal tack under Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper who has publicly praised torturers and dictators.
“The Brazilian opposition now has a face and a name and that is Lula,” Estrada said, adding: “What’s at stake now is the future of Brazilian democracy.”