Lula verdict plunges Brazil into political chaos ahead of presidential election

A Brazilian judge ordered former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva late Thursday to report to jail by 5 p.m. Friday, in a surprise move expected to galvanize widespread protests in a country already shaken by a supreme court decision earlier in the day.

The order was issued by Sérgio Moro, the main judge presiding over Brazil’s Car Wash corruption investigation, who first convicted Lula on money laundering and corruption charges in 2016.

It followed the top court’s 6-5 vote to reject a bid by Lula to stay free while he pursued appeals — a decision that effectively removed the front-runner in Brazil’s presidential election later this year. The resulting vacuum instantly recast the political landscape in Latin America’s largest country.

Demonstrators in Brasilia on Wednesday urge the Supreme Court to mandate jail for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva while he pursues an appeal in his corruption case. (Andre Coelho/Epa-Efe/Shutterstock)

Even before Moro’s ruling, the court verdict had jolted Lula’s supporters on the left, which has no clear candidate ready to replace him in the October vote, and elevated the prospects of Jair Bolsonaro, a divisive right-wing populist who has been running second to him in the polls.

“It’s going to be a very tumultuous election. The left has lost its reference,” said Carlos Melo, a professor of political science at the Insper Institute of Education and Research in Sao Paulo. “The right is fragmented, too. We will see disputes for bands of voters along the fault lines.”

After Moro’s order, the tension heightened considerably.

“This is unacceptable in a democratic society,” Paulo Frateschi, a leading member of the Workers’ Party, told a pro-Lula rally at the University of Sao Paulo. “This is one of the most fascist thing to happen in Brazil. We want to show the world that Lula is not suffering alone. He has our support.”

“I’m shocked,” said Igor Montalvão, leader of the socialist youth movement at the university. “There is clear persecution of the greatest popular leader this country has ever seen.”

“There will be resistance of all kinds,” said Luciana Salgado, 50, a linguistics professor. “People have no idea what will explode.”

Moro said Lula will be kept in a separate cell at the police station and handcuffs will not be used.

“Due to the dignity of the job he held, we are giving him the opportunity to voluntarily present himself to the police station in Curitiba,” he said.

The split court decision reflected the polarized public opinion of Lula, 72, a charismatic figure who is credited with lifting 20 million people out of poverty during his eight years in office but also has been ensnared by criminal allegations.

In January, an appeals court sentenced him to 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering in a case stemming from the investigation into what is known as the “Car Wash” operation, the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history.

Lula denies any wrongdoing. His attorney said he would “pursue all legal measures” to keep the former president out of jail.

The court’s decision Thursday will bring long-awaited clarity to Brazil’s political landscape, which had been obscured by uncertainty over Lula’s fate.

According to polling, the former president would win the election by a landslide. In the latest polls, conducted in January, he had the support of 36 percent of likely voters, double the number backing Bolsonaro.

Under Brazilian law, his conviction bars him from running for public office, but Lula and the Workers’ Party he founded in 1980 have said his campaign will continue from behind bars.

“The Brazilian people have the right to vote for Lula, the candidate of hope. The Workers’ Party will defend his candidacy in the streets in all circumstances, until the end,” the party said in a statement Thursday.

Lula met Thursday with former president Dilma Rousseff and other leaders of the party to assess the options ahead of his arrest.

The group was said to discuss whether Lula should turn himself in or wait to be arrested, according to local media reports.

“We consider this a political imprisonment,” said Sen. Gleisi Hoffmann. “It is an imprisonment that will unmask Brazil internationally. We will turn into a banana republic.”

A faction within the Workers’ Party said it planned on creating a “human barricade” to protect the former president from arrest.

Despite his vow to preserve his candidacy, many expect Lula to anoint a successor to represent the party in October. Whether he is seen as a victim or martyr once he is in prison could determine the political viability of such a candidate.

But the left has struggled to find a replacement capable of filling Lula’s shoes. Discussing alternative candidacies in the event of Lula’s imprisonment has been taboo inside the Workers’ Party, which has united behind its longtime leader throughout his trial.

“The party doesn’t have many options because Lula was so central and important. But you can’t keep insisting on Lula forever,” Melo said. “Someone will have to take over this role.”

Even if the left is able to draft an alternate, there is no guarantee he or she would automatically inherit Lula’s votes. A third of his supporters plan to cast protest votes if he is barred from running, according to a February poll. Veteran center-left candidates Marina Silva and Ciro Gomes would split another third of the votes.

Lula’s exit is expected to usher Bolsonaro to the top of the polls, according to the latest predictions. Famous for his controversial posts on social media, Bolsonaro is campaigning on a tough-on-crime platform and has publicly expressed his admiration for Brazil’s two-decade-long dictatorship, which ended in 1985.

According to analysts, he is likely to benefit from the country’s widening political divisions.

“The greater the divide, the more intolerant the situation becomes, the closer Bolsonaro comes to being president of Brazil,” said Marcos Troyjo, co-director of the BRICLab at Columbia University, which studies Brazil, China, India and Russia.

Bolsonaro celebrated the decision.

“Brazil scored a goal against impunity, against corruption, but it is just a goal,” he said in a video. “The enemy has yet to be eliminated.”

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