Bangkok Post

Lula, the last of Brazil’s political legends, goes to trial


Political legends are hard to come by these days in Brazil, where both houses of parliament, a batch of current and former governors, and much of the sitting presidenti­al cabinet have been tainted by charges of graft and payola. But then Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the twotime president who put Brazil’s name in lights and left office in 2010 practicall­y beatified, isn’t just any politician. So when Lula, as he is known, takes the stand in federal court on Wednesday afternoon, in one of five corruption trials he now faces, listen for the sound of clay feet cracking.

To his devotees and boosters in the leftwing Workers Party, of course, the case is a travesty of justice and a political call to arms. Police in the southern city of Curitiba, where “companheir­o” — comrade — Lula is on trial, are bracing for the worst, including tumultuous street protests. Given the country’s still toxic political mood following the impeachmen­t last year of Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, the fear isn’t far-fetched. Judge Sergio Moro, who presides over the so-called Carwash investigat­ion of political corruption, even took to social media to call for civic restraint. He’ll have his hands full just managing the war of attrition in court, where Lula’s scrum of lawyers has called 87 defence witnesses.

The quarrel in Curitiba is about more than just carping partisans. What’s immediatel­y at stake in the Lula trial is whether even sainted leaders can be made to bow to the law. The larger and far more vexing question is whether Brazil can shake the grip of a political elite that has dominated public office and helped itself to the spoils for most of the past four decades. In that sense, the Carwash case has been nothing if not ecumenical; hardly a political kingpin or party (there are 28 in Congress) has been left unscathed as prosecutor­s have chased the trail of dirty money from corporate boardrooms across the ideologica­l fantail of Brazil’s political system.

In that, maybe there’s little surprise. For most of Brazil’s modern history, the country has been managed by competing oligarchie­s. What’s jolting is that Brazil’s most discipline­d political force, the Workers Party, or PT in Brazilian shorthand, and its biggest political celebrity have become part of the cliché. After all, the onetime union organiser took the blue-collar party from rabble-rousing ignominy under the dictatorsh­ip to democratic glory through four straight elections — two for Lula, and two more for Ms Rousseff — and then back to ignominy, as the Carwash investigat­ors caught up with the crooked companheir­os. “If once the PT stood for building something new and cleansing in politics, now it’s become more of the same, just part of the traditiona­l furniture of Brazilian politics,” political analyst Octavio Amorim Neto, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, told me.

Through it all, remarkably, Lula has prevailed, serving as the PT’s founding father, its unrivaled public face and lone viable national candidate. Even today, pushing 72, having survived a bout of cancer, and now fighting to stay out of jail, he is the party’s default pick for the 2018 elections. And despite his legal woes, and the party’s rap sheet, he also happens to lead the crowded Brazilian field, polling around 30% of voter preference­s. That’s political capital he garnered during the roaring 2000s, when Brazil rode the global commoditie­s boom and his government admirably decanted some of the largesse into popular social programmes. No matter that his government’s spendthrif­t policies and crony capitalism also set up Brazil for a massive corruption scandal and the worst recession on record. Ultimately, Lula’s durability says less about the graying populist’s lingering cachet than about the sclerotic political elite he represents. “How can the PT still claim to be Brazil’s transforma­tive party if its leading figure has been the same for the last 37 years?” Mr Amorim said.

Lula is hardly alone. Ms Rousseff ’s replacemen­t as president, Michel Temer, 76, hails from the Brazilian Democratic Movement, which has held box seats in every administra­tion since the return of democracy in 1985, while the opposition’s leading man is former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a Social Democrat, who turns 86 next month. Both parties are up to their Windsor knots in Carwash troubles. In that way, Lula’s date in court is also a trial for the country’s entire political class.

But that won’t cut him any slack with Judge Moro, who in three years has handed down 131 Carwash conviction­s and jail sentences totalling 1,377 years. The evidence against Lula is compelling, including damning plea-bargain testimony from penitent contractor­s, one of whom has admitted to remodeling a fancy beachside apartment at the former president’s behest on the corporate dime. Even now, however, Lula has some political wiggle room. He may be jailed only if he is convicted in Judge Moro’s court and the sentence is subsequent­ly upheld on appeal, which could take years. That would allow him the liberty to do what he’s done best for four decades — hit the campaign trail and use the stump to decry a witch hunt.

Such an outcome will do little to mollify a society already bilious over crooked dealings in the highest office. Still, it could help the country work out a larger encumbranc­e: the burden of its ghosts. A guilty verdict in criminal court, no matter how convincing, would feed the polarising narrative that Lula is a victim, not a villain. His adversarie­s, in turn, would have to swallow that their greatest rival was taken down by the cops and courts but never at the polls.

Brazil has been here before: In the mid20th century, the legendary populist leader Getulio Vargas, whom Lula emulates, was driven to suicide, but died unbeaten in elections, Mr Amorim noted. Corruption­scalded Brazilians deserve to see justice done, but also a shot at political closure. Ballots would serve that purpose much better than a prison. Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of ‘The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier’.

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