Two pos­si­ble paths for Brazil’s beloved for­mer leader: Prison or the pres­i­dency

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - MA­RINA LOPES Ex­cerpted from wash­ing­ton­post.com/news/ world­views

sao paulo, brazil — A lit­tle over a year from now, Brazil’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian might be sleep­ing in one of two places: in com­fort be­hind the gates of the pres­i­den­tial palace or on a cot be­hind bars.

Luiz Iná­cio Lula da Silva, pop­u­larly known as Lula, guided the coun­try through a honey­moon pe­riod of growth as pres­i­dent from 2003 through 2010. To­day, he faces five tri­als for his al­leged in­volve­ment in a $2 bil­lion kick­back scheme that has hob­bled Brazil’s po­lit­i­cal elite.

If con­victed, the 71-year-old could be im­pris­oned for the rest of his life. But Lula has a shot at an ap­peal­ing al­ter­na­tive: the pres­i­dency. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est polls, the for­mer leader is a clear front-run­ner in pri­maries ahead of next year’s elec­tion.

The stakes could not be higher. In ad­di­tion to send­ing him to prison, a con­vic­tion would pre­vent Lula from run­ning for pub­lic of­fice, ex­tin­guish­ing his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. But if he can stall the ju­di­cial process long enough to win the Oc­to­ber 2018 vote, in­clud­ing ex­haust­ing all of his ap­peals, he’ll gain pres­i­den­tial im­mu­nity, shield­ing him from pros­e­cu­tion for four years. So Lula’s de­fense team is tak­ing its time. They have called 87 wit­nesses to take the stand for one of his tri­als, a process that could eas­ily run through the elec­tion.

A for­mer union or­ga­nizer with a fourth-grade ed­u­ca­tion, Lula rose to power as a voice for Brazil’s dis­en­fran­chised poor. He proved to be an as­tute and charis­matic politi­cian and left the pres­i­dency with a dizzy­ingly high ap­proval rate of 87 per­cent. Dur­ing his ten­ure, mil­lions were lifted from poverty into the mid­dle class, and Brazil ex­pe­ri­enced rapid growth.

The good times, how­ever, would not last. The coun­try was gripped by its worst eco­nomic cri­sis on record, with un­em­ploy­ment rates soar­ing to a record 13 per­cent. Still, Lula’s rep­u­ta­tion as a cham­pion of the mid­dle class re­mained largely in­tact. By the time his po­lit­i­cal ally Dilma Rouss­eff was im­peached in 2016 with a 10 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing, Lula was al­ready said to be plan­ning a come­back.

But he soon be­came the high­est-pro­file fig­ure to be en­snared in Brazil’s Op­er­a­tion Car­wash scan­dal, a scheme in which politi­cians al­legedly ac­cepted bribes and do­na­tions in re­turn for lu­cra­tive gov­ern­ment con­tracts. Through a se­ries of plea-bar­gain deals with de­fen­dants, prosecutors were able to trace the trail of cor­rup­tion from a Brasilia car­wash to the coun­try’s Congress. To­day, a third of the pres­i­dent’s cab­i­net and a third of the Se­nate are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Led by the Brazil­ian ac­tivist judge Sér­gio Moro, a hero to the coun­try’s anti-cor­rup­tion move­ment, the Car­wash probe has been a lev­el­ing mo­ment in Brazil­ian pol­i­tics, sig­nal­ing that no one, no mat­ter how rich or pow­er­ful, is above the law. But whether it can bring down the most beloved politi­cian in the coun­try’s his­tory re­mains to be seen.

On Wed­nes­day, in a show­down of giants, Lula tes­ti­fied be­fore Moro for five hours, deny­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that he ac­cepted the re­fur­bish­ing of a beach­front apart­ment by one of the coun­try’s ma­jor con­struc­tion firms in ex­change for in­flu­ence. Lula has called the Car­wash probe a witch hunt and claims that the main­stream me­dia and the conservative right are try­ing to sab­o­tage his bid for another term as pres­i­dent.

Throngs of Lula and Moro sup­port­ers de­scended on the south­ern city of Cu­ritiba on the day of the tes­ti­mony. In a fiery speech to his red-clad loy­al­ists, a teary-eyed Lula promised to see the process to the end. “I’ll do as many de­po­si­tions as nec­es­sary, be­cause if there is a Brazil­ian, if there is a hu­man be­ing, search­ing for the truth, it is me,” he said.

Moro will hear fi­nal ar­gu­ments be­fore rul­ing. Even if Lula is not con­victed, an­a­lysts say, the in­ves­ti­ga­tions have tar­nished his rep­u­ta­tion and left his party in sham­bles. It is un­clear whether he can rally his re­main­ing sup­port to get him be­yond the pri­maries and into the pres­i­dency.

“His cred­i­bil­ity with the mid­dle class has been se­verely af­fected over the years be­cause of the cor­rup­tion scan­dals,” said Hernán Gómez, an ex­pert on Latin Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and au­thor of a book on Lula. “He can eas­ily win the first round, but the se­cond won’t be so easy.”

EVARISTO SA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Luiz Iná­cio Lula da Silva.

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