“Lula is not only Lula. Lula is an idea.” Or so said Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva about himself six months ago during a rally in Rio de Janeiro. While the statement might be thoroughly immodest, it is accurate. Not long ago, Lula was more than the president of Latin America’s largest economy: he was the embodiment of an ideal politician, a man who escaped poverty to lead a nation of 200 million people to a glorious future.
When Lula left office in December 2010, he was supported by over 80 percent of Brazilians. No other Brazilian politician has reached levels of approval that can even begin to compete with that number. Lula’s prestige was so great that he managed to elect as his successor Dilma Rousseff, who had never run for office – any office – in her life.
Now, Lula is set to become the first former president to find himself behind bars. The Supreme Court has decided to deny him the right to suspend the effects of a criminal conviction. In July 2017, a federal court convicted him to a prison sentence of 9 and a half years for corruption and money laundering. On January 24, an appellate court confirmed that conviction, increasing the penalty to 12 years and one month.
With a vote of 6-5, the Supreme Court has decided that Lula should begin serving that sentence – that, however, could take days – or weeks. Justice Rosa Weber cast the deciding vote. Weber is personally against arrests before a final decision is made by the Supreme Court, but has followed the Court’s jurisprudence established 2016.
“A ruling shouldn’t be based on the judge’s personal preferences, but on the best interpretation of the law, legal tradition, and values of a society,” said Weber. She added, however, that her vote could have been different if the Supreme Court was ruling on a more generic case, about the constitutionality of arrests before a conviction by Brazil’s highest court.
What the verdict means for Brazil
As prosecutor general Raquel Dodge said on Tuesday, Lula’s case was “one of the most important and consequential trials in Brazilian history.” In a country where white-collar crime is usually met with impunity, having a former president – and the most popular of them – put behind bars sends a strong message that no one is above the law.
We knew that this verdict would be extremely divisive regardless of the outcome. Lula’s case, after all, is enormously controversial. His supporters believe that his conviction – which was for receiving gifts from construction companies in exchange for government contracts – was not based on irrefutable evidence. “It is reasonable to arrest people after multiple convictions,” says political scientist José Álvaro Moisés, from the University of São Paulo. “In most consolidated democracies, that’s the norm.”
Moreover, sending Lula to prison has another major implication: it excludes him from the 2018 presidential race. Lula is the front-runner for the presidency, and would win a third term if the election were held today.
The speed with which Lula’s case ran in the appellate court also raised many eyebrows. At the first degree, nine months passed between the moment Lula was charged and the issuing of his verdict – which is in line with how Sérgio Moro normally operates. The Federal Judge has concluded cases within six months to a year. From that moment on, however, things have sped up.
The Federal Appellate Court accepted the charges against the former president after just 42 days, versus its typical average of 96 days. The case’s rapporteur analyzed all evidence and wrote his opinion on the case in a matter of 100 days – that’s nearly three times faster than his usual 275 days. The appeal trial was scheduled for January 24 – only 54 days after the rapporteur completed his judicial opinion, and roughly half of the average time of 102 days.
“This is the script of a coup,” said Marcus de Deus Coelho, a 60-year-old teacher in Rio and longtime Workers’ Party supporter. “It is condemnation without proof, based on suspicions. Brazil is waving the banner of a liberal state, but even basic democratic rights are not guaranteed.”
But Lula’s conviction has support among Brazil’s conservative electorate. “We have to put the corrupt politicians – including Lula – in jail. Lula is the head of the gang, he was in charge of all of the corruption schemes,” says Mara Narciso, a 47-year-old conservative voter in Rio. “This verdict shows that Brazil is still on the right track.”
Back on January 9, The Brazilian Report published an article declaring that “no matter what, the 2018 election will be controversial.” Lula’s case, regardless of the outcome, would seem unfair to a huge percentage of the electorate. Sending Lula to prison also risks increasing Brazil’s instability. Supporters of the former president claim that “an election without Lula is a fraud.”
But since Lula escaped prison, his detractors are calling foul play and argue that, once again, a powerful man has been spared from jail. Some of the military went as far as to threaten an intervention if Lula is allowed to run for president, and wins the race.
“We’re heading in a strange direction. Political players have lost the ability to debate peacefully. There’s a rising tide of authoritarianism in this country,” says Moisés. The political scientist also cites the recent threats against Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin and the murder of Rio’s city councilwoman Marielle Franco as further examples of this trend.
“Brazil is in a delicate position. It is impossible to predict where we’re going to end up – especially since not a single political leader has been able to propose a way out of this political mess.”