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July 25, 2017
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Conviction casts dark shadow over Lula’s presidential hopes

A sign reading “Lula was convicted” is seen under a flag in São Paulo, on Wednesday night.
A sign reading “Lula was convicted” is seen under a flag in São Paulo, on Wednesday night.
A sign reading “Lula was convicted” is seen under a flag in São Paulo, on Wednesday night.
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Brazil’s most influential — and most popular — leader of recent times, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was convicted on Wednesday of graft and money-laundering. Lula denies the charges and has vowed to appeal, but have his changes of winning the presidency in 2018 gone up in smoke?

A political earthquake, the epicentre of which lies in Curitiba in the country’s south, sent shockwaves through Brazil this week, when former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was convicted on Wednesday of corruption and money-laundering and sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison.

Brazilian Federal Judge Sergio Moro found Lula guilty of accepting 3.7 million reais (US$1.15 million) worth of bribes from engineering firm OAS SA. Prosecutors say that was the amount spent by the company refurbishing a beach apartment for the former president, in return for his help winning contracts with state oil company Petrobras. Lula never owned the apartment, but prosecutors argued it was intended for him. Prosecutors also alleged that OAS paid to store Silva’s belongings, but Moro dismissed that part of the case

OAS was part of a supplier cartel that prosecutors said fleeced billions of dollars from Petrobras through inflated contracts, funnelling some of the ill-gotten gains to politicians and political parties. Several OAS executives have been jailed by Moro, the judge overseeing the so-called “Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato)” investigation, the largest-ever corruption probe in Brazil’s history.

Speaking yesterday, Lula vowed to appeal his conviction and run for president next year, calling the case against him politicised and a bid to swing the election. Just a few hours after the ex-Workers’ Party (PT) leader spoke, President Michel Temer received a boost, as a lower house committee voted against recommending that he face trial over alleged corruption.

Lula left everybody in no doubt as to where he stood yesterday. “They haven’t taken me out of the game,” he told supporters at the PT’s headquarters.

The former president’s lawyers said he is innocent. He will remain free while his attorneys appeal the ruling, which they have characterised as a “political witch-hunt.” The appeals court is expected to take at least eight months to rule.

“This politically motivated judgment attacks Brazil’s rule of law, democracy and Lula’s basic human rights,” Lula’s defence team wrote in a statement. “It is of immense concern to the Brazilian people and to the international community.”

Stunning setback

The ruling, while not unexpected, was a stunning setback for Lula, one of the country’s most popular politicians, and a serious blow to his chances of a political comeback. The former union leader, who won global praise for policies that reduced harsh inequality in Brazil, also faces four more additional trials.

If his conviction is upheld on appeal, Lula will be barred from office, removing the front-runner from the 2018 race and opening the door to outsiders playing to widespread outrage over a deep economic recession and evidence of vast political graft.

But PT leaders and Lula’s defence team are working on s strategy to delay the decision by an appeals court, using every legal tool available, such as multiple appeals, to slow the process down, possibly allowing Lula to run for the presidency before any appeals court ruling.

The head of the appeals court in charge of the case, Judge Carlos Thompson Flores, told Bandnews radio yesterday that the court would have a ruling finalised before the October 2018 election.

Senator Gleisi Hoffmann, the current leader of the PT, said that the party would protest Lula’s sentence internationally, though she did not define where. Lula’s legal team has already asked the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to examine the prosecution of Lula.

Lula, the country’s first working-class president, remains Brazil’s best-known politician and has retained a base of loyal supporters despite his legal woes. As president, he put resources from a commodities boom into social programmes helping to lift millions from poverty, turned Brazil into an important global player and left office with sky-high popularity ratings.

Lula characterised the verdict against him as part of the Brazilian elites’ backlash against his legacy. He denied any wrongdoing and excoriated the decision handed down by Moro, who has overseen a sweeping three-year graft probe.

Lula now holds the dubious honour of becoming the country’s first ex-president to be convicted in a criminal proceeding at least since democracy was restored in the 1980s.

“The present conviction does not bring this judge any personal satisfaction. Quite the contrary, it is regrettable that a former president be criminally convicted,” Moro wrote in his decision. “It doesn’t matter how high you are, the law is still above you.”

Moro said he did not order Lula’s immediate arrest because the conviction of a president is such a serious matter that he felt the former leader’s appeal should be heard first. Moro also ruled that the politician should be barred from public office for 19 years. The prosecutor’s office that handled the case said it would appeal the sentence to ask for it to be increased.

The case is part of the huge “Car Wash” probe centred on state-run oil giant Petrobras that has led to the convictions of dozens of business executives and politicians, and threatens Temer, the current head of state.

The news of Lula’s conviction took the focus off Temer this week, who himself is accused of taking bribes from a meatpacking executive in exchange for helping the company obtain favourable government decisions. Temer denies wrongdoing, and the members of the lower house of Congress will decide soon if he should be suspended from office and put on trial.

Presidential hopes

A former shoe-shiner with a fourth-grade education, Lula was the Brazilian dream incarnate. He rose to the presidency as an underdog, vowing to represent the rights of a working class struggling with inequality. After founding the PT and fighting as a member of the radical left, Lula embraced Brazil’s business sector in the early 2000’s and won his two mandates by landslides.

His presidency coincided with an economic boom, circumstances that run in stark contrast to today’s economic turmoil in the country. During Lula’s administration, 36 million people were lifted out of poverty through wealth-transfer programmes like his Bolsa Familia, which were widely praised by the World Bank and the United Nations.

After leaving office with popularity ratings of up to 87 percent, Brazilians then elected his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, to succeed him. But a subsequent fall in commodity prices and economic mismanagement led the economy to implode — and with it Rousseff’s popularity. Rousseff was later impeached under questionable pretences and replaced by Temer. With Rousseff’s impeachment, the left fell out of favour with most Brazilians, who filled the congress and city governments with centre-right politicians.

The former PT leader’s conviction drastically reshapes next year’s presidential election, potentially opening the way for an outsider to take power, political experts said.

Lula, a giant on the Brazilian political scene, has said he wants to run for president and reiterated that claim yesterday. But if his nearly 10-year sentence is upheld on appeal, the former PT leader would be barred from seeking office again for eight years, beginning after any jail time is complete.

Lula, 71, is among a raft of businessmen and politicians who have been toppled by the epic CarWash corruption scandal. Some believe angry voters are now searching for someone to lead them out of the political and economic wilderness.

“Brazil is now as polarised as the United States, it really has been for years,” said Carlos Melo, a political scientist with Insper, a São Paulo business school. “But if Lula is absent it would unquestionably open the space for an outside, very emotional leader.”

Despite Lula’s legal woes, he remains Brazil’s best-known politician and has retained a base of loyal supporters. Recent surveys from the respected Datafolha polling institute show that in a second-round run-off next year, Lula would beat all contenders with the exception of the environmentalist and two-time presidential candidate Marina Silva, with whom he is in a technical tie. But if Lula cannot run, and with roughly 20 percent of the electorate undecided on any candidate, the election is up for grabs.

Thirst for outsiders

The public’s thirst for showmanship and anti-establishment candidates, Melo said, could give a boost to two outsiders: Ciro Gomes, a tough-talking former governor, federal minister and congressmen who is now with the Democratic Workers Party (PDT); and João Doria, a millionaire media mogul and former star of Brazil’s version of The Apprentice.

Gomes, despite his long career in politics, is a rough-and-tumble politician who could easily position himself as an anti-government candidate. Loud and politically incorrect, Gomes called unpopular Temer the “captain of the coup” that led to Rousseff’s impeachment last year.

Doria, who had never held elected office before, stunned the political establishment last year when he won the mayorship of South America’s largest city in the first round, capturing 53 percent of the vote. A member of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), he is loved by the business community for his pro-market stance. And he has caught the public’s attention with stunts such as donning a street sweeper’s uniform and spending days cleaning roadways.

Shortly after the Lula verdict was made public, Doria posted on Twitter that “Justice has been done.”

“The most shameless man in Brazil was condemned to nine and a half years in prison,” Doria continued. “Long live Brazil.”

The latest Datafolha polls shows Gomes and Doria in a technical tie in a second-round presidential vote next year. Elsewhere, a far right-wing, law-and-order candidate, congressman Jair Bolsonaro, of the Social Christian Party (PSC), also has polled well, taking 15 percent of a simulated first-round vote in the Datafolha survey, putting him behind only Lula. But political watchers caution his appeal is likely to wane as opponents dig into his trove of anti-gay, pro-dictatorship utterances. Bolsonaro is facing a trial before Brazil’s Supreme Court for inciting violence after he told a female congresswoman on the floor of the lower house that he “would not rape her because she would not be worthy of it.”

For Lula and his supporters, the fight isn’t over and the Planalto Palace could still be his in 2018.

“It was an obviously political decision to prevent Lula from becoming president,” said Armando Teixeira, an unemployed auto worker who was demonstrating in support of the former head of state. “Everyone knows he will win if he runs.” Yesterday, Lula vowed to win and put Brazil’s poor back at the centre of politics.

“If anyone thinks with this sentence they took me out of the game, they should know, I’m still playing,” he said at a rally surrounded by supporters. “The people do not need to be governed by a member of the elite but by someone who knows what hunger and unemployment are.”

Herald with agencies

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