Three years ago he was in prison. Now he’s poised to be Brazil’s next president

Three years ago, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva languished in a prison cell.

The former president of Brazil, who ruled the country from 2003 to 2010, was sentenced to 12 months in prison for corruption. His political career seemed over.

When he took the stage on a balmy evening in this working-class town outside of Rio de Janeiro recently – smiling broadly as thousands chanted his name – it was a comeback that would have been unthinkable before.

People at a campaign event.

People attend a campaign rally for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva near Rio de Janeiro this month.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Lula, as he is commonly known, appears poised to win Brazil’s presidential election. The question, according to polls, is not if he will beat far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, but when.

Recent polls have shown Lula to have about 45% of the vote, compared to 35% for Bolsonaro, putting Lula within striking distance of overall victory by receiving at least half of the vote in Sunday’s first round of voting. If no candidate wins more than 50%, the top two finishers go to a runoff on October 30th.

Two men with their arms around each other.

A same-sex couple attend a rally for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

A victory for Lula – who was released from prison in 2019 after a court ruled the judge overseeing his corruption trial was biased – would cap one of the most remarkable political resurgences in recent memory.

It would be a testament not only to the determination and populist appeal of a former President Obama, once dubbed “the most popular president in the world,” but also to growing concerns about the rising inequality driving a new wave of leftists across Latin America catapulted America to power in recent years.

Analysts say Lula’s dominance in the polls has a lot to do with Bolsonaro, 67, a outspoken former military officer who has faced his own corruption allegations and is widely believed to have helped shape Brazil’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic botched.

But Lula also deftly tapped into Brazilian nostalgia for the more prosperous days of his presidency, when the country rose from the 13th to the seventh largest economy in the world and, as Lula often pointed out during the campaign, the average citizen could afford beef.

“We’ve had some really good years,” said Marcelo Franca, a 62-year-old writer. “People are nostalgic for that.”

But virtually everyone agrees that if Lula wins, it will be difficult to repeat his past success because the political and economic environment has changed so dramatically.

Brazil’s growth during Lula’s first two terms was fueled by rising global demand for commodities such as soybeans and iron, and the discovery of the largest oil reserves in the country’s history.

Today, like much of the rest of the world, the nation is trying to emerge from the economic crater left by the pandemic while battling double-digit inflation and rising fuel costs.

“It’s a much more complicated world,” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Council of the Americas. “It’s not nearly as fun to be president today as it was in the 2000s.”

And if Lula wins, he’ll be tasked with ruling a nation that’s never been more divided.

People raise their arms and shout.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has tapped into Brazilians’ longing for the more prosperous days of his presidency, as the country rose from the 13th to the 7th largest economy in the world.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Since the corruption trial against him and the impeachment of his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, polarization has deepened, with the left blaming the right for manipulating the justice system and Bolsonaro supporters vilifying Lula as a thief plotting to steal the election.

Bolsonaro has fueled these tensions by borrowing from his ally, former President Trump’s playbook, and sowing doubts about the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system, which the US claims is sound. Bolsonaro has hinted he could dismiss the election results and has hinted at violence, saying he sees only three options for his future: “prison, get killed, or win”.

The tense atmosphere was evident at Lula’s rally in Nova Iguaçu, where bystanders were searched for weapons and Lula’s chest was bulged with a bulletproof vest.

At the age of 76, the candidate’s trademark beard and curly mop of hair have turned white. His famously hoarse voice has taken on a hoarser tone since a battle with throat cancer in 2011.

A woman gets emotional.

A follower of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gets emotional. Brazil, like the rest of the world, is trying to emerge from the economic crater left by the COVID-19 pandemic while battling inflation and rising fuel costs.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

But when Lula began to speak and railed against classism, racism and Bolsonaro, for many it was as if time had stood still.

“People don’t choose to be poor,” he said. “We want to work, we want to eat well, we want our children to have good clothes and shoes and three meals a day.”

It could have been two decades ago when Lula first took office, or half a century ago when he drew national attention as a combative labor leader and challenged the country’s military dictatorship.

Born into a poor family in northeastern Brazil, Lula left school at the age of 12 to support his siblings and mother. A few years later he lost his little finger in an accident at an auto parts factory.

After organizing steel workers’ strikes in 1985, which he was credited with helping to overthrow the dictatorship, Lula ran three unsuccessful presidential campaigns – in 1989, 1994 and 1998.

He won the 2002 election after compromising with the same powerful business interests he had long criticized.

It was an exciting time for leftists in Latin America.

The so-called pink tide had brought a whole range of them to power – from Argentina to Bolivia to Ecuador.

The movement’s poster boy was President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a self-proclaimed Marxist who nationalized key industries and redistributed wealth to the poor while bending the constitution to stay in power.

Lula distinguished himself less as an ideologue and more as a pragmatist. He elected a Wall Street banker to head Brazil’s central bank, and when other left-wing governments defaulted on international loans, Brazil repaid them early.

In this way, he is a role model for the current class of left-wing politicians who have won elections in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Panama and Honduras in recent years.

A man is talking over a television.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, featured in a TV commercial, appears poised to win Brazil’s presidential election over far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Several leaders of what analysts are calling the “new pink tide,” including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have adopted elements of Lula’s signature health, education and social programs, albeit with mixed results.

That’s in large part because his program, which provided remittances of $30 a month to 12 million working-class families, led to such radical changes.

During Lula’s tenure, 20 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty and the number of Afro-Brazilians entering university has tripled.

Rafaela Albergaria was one of these new students and was the first person in her family to go to college.

“I’m the embodiment of Lula’s politics,” she said.

Albergaria, a social worker from a working class town outside of Rio de Janeiro, is running for state legislature this year under Lula’s Workers’ Party and is part of a nationwide movement that has encouraged black women to run for office. She carries a red tote bag decorated with Lula’s face, and her campaign posters show pictures of him hugging her in a bear hug.

Albergaria, 32, is grateful for Lula’s support.

But it is a reminder that if he wins, he will face pressure from the left demanding more radical action on issues like gender equality, police brutality and climate change.

“We don’t just want Lula,” Albergaria said. “We want more.” Three years ago he was in prison. Now he’s poised to be Brazil’s next president

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