Q&A: Despite his corruption conviction, Brazil’s Lula says he’s running for president again. Can he really?

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva addresses executive members of the Workers' Party in Sao Paulo on Jan. 25, 2018.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva addresses executive members of the Workers’ Party in Sao Paulo on Jan. 25, 2018.
(Andre Penner / Associated Press)

Brazil’s politics has always been tumultuous.

With two presidents impeached in the last 16 years and innumerable other politicians, including city councilors and the speaker of the house, accused and convicted of corruption in the more recent investigation code-named Car Wash, it’s easy to see why Brazilians have become exasperated with politics.

Now, the future of their country is more uncertain than ever.

The polling firm Datafolha found in December that the top candidate in Brazil’s October presidential election, with 36% of the intended vote, was former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. But this week a three-judge panel upheld his corruption and money laundering conviction.

Once the most popular politician in the country with an 87% approval rating at the end of his presidency, Lula has become a divisive figure in Brazil’s political sphere. In recent weeks supporters from his Workers’ Party have been clashing on an almost-daily basis with those who call him a thief and a liar, both online and on the streets. Here’s a look at what’s next in South America’s largest and most-populous nation.

So is Lula’s long career finally over?

Not according to him. Lula, a former labor leader and congressman whose two terms as president ended in 2010, says he still intends to run for president this year. He aims to replace Michel Temer, who assumed the presidency after Dilma Rousseff, a Lula protege, was impeached in 2016.

What did Lula do when his conviction was upheld?

After the decision was handed down, Lula left his home in Sao Bernardo do Campo and headed to Republic Square in downtown Sao Paulo, where thousands of his supporters had gathered.

He accepted the judges’ decision, Lula told the crowd, but added that what he does “not accept is the lie by which they made the decision. They know I did not commit a crime. I would be willing to stay with the three judges for a full day so they can show me what crime Lula has committed.”

Lula was convicted on July 12 on a set of corruption charges for accepting $1.2 million in bribes from contractor OAS. Prosecutors say that in return, Lula helped the firm win contracts with state-run oil giant Petrobras. Lula was originally sentenced to 9½ years in jail. The three-judge panel increased that to 12 years, one month.

Lula was originally sentenced to 9½ years in jail. The three-judge panel increased that to 12 years, one month.

What happens next?

On Thursday, two attorneys filed requests with the court that heard Lula’s case, asking for the seizure of Lula’s passport and that he be barred from leaving the country. The attorneys argued Lula could request political asylum in Ethiopia.

Late Thursday night, federal criminal court Judge Ricardo Augusto Soares Leite granted their requests, and Lula canceled his trip to Addis Ababa. His lawyers said that they were “awed” by the decision and that Lula would turn in his passport Friday.

Isn’t he going to prison?

Not yet. Although his appeal was rejected and his conviction upheld, Lula and his lawyers still have other recourse to stop his imprisonment, which they will present once they receive the official notification of the court decision, expected to take a few days.

His attorneys, Cristiano Zanin Martins and Valeska Teixeira Zanin Martins, said they would exhaust all possible measures in the federal regional court where the decision was made, as well as in the Superior Court of Justice and the Supreme Court in Brasilia, the nation’s capital.

Because the vote to reject his appeal was unanimous, his team will have fewer options. If the vote had been a split decision of 2-1, Lula’s lawyers could have filed a motion for reconsideration, so that three other judges could hear the case.

One of the options left for the former president’s attorneys to request is an amendment of judgment, which does not call into question the validity of the decision, but asks for an explanation of any omissions or confusing parts in what the judges presented. Although the strategy would not change the outcome of the appeal — the same three judges would oversee the proceedings — it would delay the official conclusion of the trial and the execution of Lula’s 12-year sentence.

Can Lula still run for president?

Probably not. But the final decision on that matter could take some time.

Technically speaking, Brazil’s Clean Slate Law prohibits electioneering for eight years by anyone who has had their “mandate” revoked. That applies, for example, to those convicted by a panel of judges or someone who resigned office to avoid being impeached. (Under these provisions, Lula couldn’t run for office until he’s 80.)

But that didn’t stop the Workers’ Party from announcing Wednesday that it will still register Lula as its presidential candidate.

"We will confirm Lula's candidacy at the party convention and register it on Aug. 15, strictly following what electoral legislation ensures," said Gleisi Hoffmann, a senator and president of the party.

Once Lula is a registered candidate, it will be up to the electoral court to decide whether he is eligible to run. The deadline for the court’s final decision on candidate eligibility is Sept. 17.

If he’s out, who’s in?

A lot can happen between now and October, but behind Lula in the recent poll with 18% was congressman and retired army Capt. Jair Bolsonaro. Once considered an embarrassing long shot, the archconservative lawmaker is now widely seen as a favorite in October’s election. His vocal support of torture and guns, as well as his disparaging comments toward women, black people and LGBTQ people have landed him comparisons to President Trump and Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte.

Last year he said, “A policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman” and remarked that women in Afro-Brazilian communities called quilombos “don’t do anything — they’re not even good for breeding anymore.” For the latter comment he was convicted of offending minorities and ordered to pay a $15,000 fine. He was also fined $3,000 in 2014 for saying to a fellow lawmaker on the floor of Congress, “I’m not going to rape you because you don’t deserve it.”

But Bolsonaro, whose sons are also politicians — one is a state legislator, another is a city councilman and the third is a federal congressman — is popular among Brazil’s wealthy, well-educated voters, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 25.

Behind him is Sen. Marina Silva, a previous presidential candidate and environmentalist running for the Sustainability Network Party, with about 10% of the intended vote.

But I’m not Brazilian. Why should I care?

Lula’s conviction has left investors — both in Brazil and overseas — in a lurch as they wait for election campaigns to gain steam.

“The unanimous rejection of Lula’s appeal leaves investors facing a highly uncertain policy outlook,” said Jimena Blanco, head of Latin America at the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, who noted that “other potential candidates have yet to reveal concrete platforms or proposals.”

Tensions in Brazil have also already been running high in recent years because of its political and economic crises, and Lula’s corruption conviction has made the line down the middle of the country even more concrete.

Social unrest is not what the region needs right now. Venezuela is in shambles, Peru is still recovering from severe flooding and Argentina is trying to pull itself out of debt. Brazil is a big player in South America, and its worsening political crisis could weigh heavily on its already hurting economy, which could cause a ripple effect across the continent.

Langlois is a special correspondent.