'I'm back': Brazil's Lula fills leftist leadership void

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


Out of jail and full of rage, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has put his far-right nemesis President Jair Bolsonaro in the cross-hairs, as he takes up the mantle of leading the left.

Declaring "I'm back" in a fiery speech to hundreds of supporters near Sao Paulo on Saturday, Lula, 74, appeared energized by his year-and-a-half-long incarceration for corruption as he spoke for nearly an hour in the heat, a day after walking out of prison.

Ripping apart Bolsonaro's economic policies and accusing him of serving criminal groups in Rio de Janeiro, the former president signaled his intention to fill the left's leadership void and take them to victory in the 2022 election.

"The leader of the left has shown his willingness to use the most messianic version of himself to try to awaken a leftist opposition lacking ideas and leadership," the respected Folha de Sao Paulo daily said in an editorial on Monday.

Brazil's left has floundered since Lula's jailing in April 2018.

Without the charismatic leader at the helm, the Workers Party (PT) that Lula helped found nearly 40 years ago lost the 2018 election to far-right Bolsonaro and has been largely rudderless ever since.

Lula's release following a Supreme Court ruling on Thursday could change that, said Vinicius Vieira, a professor of international relations at the University of Sao Paulo.

"He presents a great challenge in the midst of Bolsonaro's declining popularity," Vieira told AFP.

"Lula is able to mobilize a lot of people who recognize the PT's corruption, but also remember the benefits of economic growth, income growth during Lula's government."

Known for his common touch, Lula plans to traverse the vast country, starting Sunday with a meeting in Recife, the capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, where he was born.

"Lula will eclipse Bolsonaro in the coming weeks and will be the focus of attention," said Thiago Vidal, a political analyst at Prospectiva consultancy.

"The question is how Bolsonaro and his government will react."

- 'Scoundrel' -

So far, Bolsonaro has branded Lula a "scoundrel."

General Augusto Heleno, the minister for institutional security and a close adviser to the president, accused Lula of inciting violence after he praised the protests against Chile's conservative President Sebastian Pinera.

Lula remains extremely popular in Brazil after he led the country through a historic boom from 2003 to 2010, earning the gratitude of millions of Brazilians for redistributing wealth to haul them out of poverty.

Since leaving office, however, his image has been tarnished by a corruption investigation called Car Wash that exposed a massive kickback scheme involving the state oil giant Petrobras.

Lula was among scores of high-profile politicians and business elite caught up in the probe that shocked even Brazilians long used to corrupt leaders.

He was serving eight years and 10 months for corruption and money laundering when the Supreme Court issued a ruling last Thursday that could free thousands of convicts.

Lula was sentenced to almost 13 years in February in a separate corruption case and still faces another half dozen corruption trials.

While his criminal record prevents him from running for office for now, Lula has made clear he will be politically active as he seeks to revive the left.

But to expand his appeal, the former shoeshine boy and steelworker is likely to tone down his fervent language and forge alliances of convenience, as he has done in the past.

"He wanted a fiery first speech to please his (leftist) activists," said Sylvio Costa, a journalist for the Congress in Focus website.

"But I think we will soon see a more pragmatic Lula, anxious to get the PT out of the isolation of opposition."