The Return of Lula

The Return of Lula

A Brazilian Supreme Court justice has tossed out criminal charges against the former president. His enduring relationship with working-class voters makes him a serious contender in next year’s election.

Lula greets supporters soon after being released from prison in 2019 (Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

On Monday, Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was deemed eligible to once again seek his country’s highest office in next year’s election.

Handed down by a lone Supreme Court justice, this ruling is momentous because Lula currently leads in the polls, just as he did in 2018 when he tried to run for president while imprisoned on flimsy corruption charges. In fact, Lula is the only potential candidate currently polling ahead of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, whose calamitous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised international alarm. Recent data shows 50 percent of voters would either vote, or consider voting, for Lula, while 44 percent say they would not under any circumstances. Bolsonaro, the incumbent, has 38 percent in his corner but is rejected by 56 percent of voters. Fernando Haddad, Lula’s former minister of education who lost to Bolsonaro in 2018, can count on 27 percent of voters but faces opposition from 52 percent of the electorate. How did Lula’s political strength last through myriad highly publicized scandals—some real, many more manufactured—and 580 days in prison?

One factor that probably plays in Lula’s favor is the median age in Brazil, which is only thirty-three. As Brian Winter, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, put it, “the average Brazilian was only 22 when Lula left office, and a teenager during his presidency’s best years. Even before [yesterday’s] court ruling, he inspired less love—or hatred—than media or politicians might have you believe.” To the extent that young Brazilians recall Lula’s time in office from 2003 to 2011, they more likely than not regard it as a period of relative prosperity and promise, a time of rising expectations that have since been unceremoniously obliterated.

Another more palpable factor is Lula’s resilient relationship with poor and working-class voters. Hailing from the impoverished Northeast and coming of age in the rapidly urbanizing industrial heartland around São Paulo, Lula has been a singular figure in twentieth-century Brazilian history. He is the leader of Latin America’s largest and arguably most successful grassroots political party and, unlike most prominent politicians, is himself a product of the grassroots. From the late 1970s, when he first emerged on the national scene as a confrontational union leader, through the early 2000s, when he won the presidency after three failed attempts, Lula toured the country extensively, linking his life story of overcoming adversity to the broader struggle for equality, justice, and recognition in one of the most unequal countries on Earth.

On one hand, it is deeply frustrating that Lula remains the only strong bet that Brazilian progressives have in a national election. This is partly the former president’s doing; there is no excuse for one man to so completely dominate the left in a country as big, vibrant, and diverse as Brazil. On the other hand, Lula built his relationship with a huge part of the electorate arduously, over many years. That kind of bond cannot be forged overnight. Indeed, as the Democratic Party in the United States seeks to reestablish ties with a disillusioned working class, they might look to Lula’s consistency, the heart of his political vision that has survived unseemly compromises along the way, for inspiration. Lula’s strong showing in the polls evinces the importance of having political leaders drawn from the very same working class that progressives everywhere want to engage and mobilize.

It remains hypothetical, of course, but it is not too early to imagine what a third Lula term would look like. He would be uniquely capable of brokering hemispheric dialogue to resolve the delicate political situation in Venezuela. He also, as Daniel Aldana Cohen noted, “might be the only person in Brazil who can effectively tell the story of egalitarian green investment to the country’s vast, multiracial working class.” Finally, it is difficult to imagine a more compelling figure than Lula to lead the climb out of the hole that COVID-19 has dug for the most vulnerable Brazilians. When he took office in the early 2000s, Lula helped to arrest the advance of neoliberalism across Latin America, supporting other leaders in the so-called Pink Tide that raised living standards and expanded democracy across the region. He might lead another progressive resurgence in the years to come, this time as the elder statesman rather than an upstart eager to prove himself worthy in the insular elite-driven circles of Brazilian politics.

Historian John French, who in 2020 published a magisterial biography of Lula, argued that the former president’s political skill rests on his ability to effectively communicate with different audiences through the plainspoken language of triumph over adversity and collective struggle toward a common aim. “Throughout his career,” French concludes, “Lula has consistently been an institutionalist—whether for the union or the political party. He never sought an unmediated relationship between atomized individuals and an anointed savior that is considered central to ‘charismatic’ or ‘populist’ leadership.” Lula has not cultivated a relationship with the Brazilian masses based on top-down condescension. Rather, he has consistently presented himself as one of them, a partner who will fight for the neediest Brazilians if they will but vote for him and members of his party. Now that he can run again, Lula’s endurance in the polls suggests that voters seem ready to honor their end of this democratic bargain.

Andre Pagliarini is a lecturer of modern Latin American history at Dartmouth College. He is currently preparing a book manuscript on twentieth-century Brazilian nationalism.