SAO PAULO – As Brazil’s largest leftist party gathers to plan the future, a figure that has dominated its past looms ever larger.
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the unquestioned star of the party conference starting Friday in Sao Paulo, and many still think he could be the party’s standard-bearer once again in 2022 — when he’ll be a 77-year-old cancer survivor who is currently barred from seeking office due to a corruption conviction.
Da Silva, who governed Brazil between 2003 and 2010, is fresh out of jail after 19 months in a cell. He could return to jail if he loses his last appeals in Brazil’s top court, but there is no date for those decisions to be made.
“Today I feel much stronger than the day I surrendered to the federal police,” a raucous da Silva said Friday night. “I am more willing to fight for this country than in any other moment. You will see me traveling around this country, not only making their lives hell, but also defending the Brazilian people who don’t deserve to experience what they experiencing.”
The thousands of his supporters who came to Sao Paulo’s Casa de Portugal on a rainy evening are convinced the former president’s conviction was unfair, and so will be any convictions in other charges.
Most analysts see da Silva as a potential kingmaker and strategist for the party he was instrumental in transforming. One of these people is former chief-of-staff and senator, Jaques Wagner.
“Don’t expect narrow-minded politics to come from his head. Radicalism is not in his spirit,” Wagner told The Associated Press. He believes da Silva should open the way for a new generation of politicians from Brazil’s Northeast to take center stage in the next presidential election.
But Raul Pont, a member of the Workers' Party and former mayor of Porto Alegre, thinks it is “too soon” to rule da Silva out of the presidential ticket.
“What he will start doing now is organizing a progressive movement, one that goes beyond our party. Then we will see, in case he is eligible,” he said.
The former union leader took a party some politicians long regarded as a radical fringe and brought it to power in 2003, winning adulation from millions for presiding over more than a decade of prosperity and reduced poverty with policies that were far more business-friendly than many foes had feared.
That record was increasingly stained by corruption scandals that finally snared da Silva himself, and the 80% approval ratings he enjoyed on leaving office in 2010 have slipped to about 40% today — even so better than that of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Still, many on the left still see him as the only politician who can today organize the opposition to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who last year ended the Workers’ Party string of victory in four consecutive elections.
Da Silva seems to agree.
“I am the biggest polarizer of this country. What I want is to polarize. They don’t know what it is to face a 74-year-old passionate man,” he said.
The left came out weakened from the last election, and Bolsonaro, a former army captain who much like U.S. President Donald Trump has broken free from conventional ways of governing, has further destabilized the opposition, some analysts believe.
Others argue the opposition has remained quieter than expected because the Bolsonaro administration is often proving to be its own worst enemy.
The Workers’ Party remains the biggest party in the lower house, with 54 seats. But even under da Silva, it required alliances with smaller parties to govern — parties that eventually proved unreliable allies.
Da Silva’s Workers’ Party successor, Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 when former coalition members turned against her. And the Workers’ Party candidate in the last election, Fernando Haddad, lost with less than 45 percent of the vote.
Political analyst Fábio Kerche, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro state, said da Silva has already sent signals he would try to reach beyond the party, to the center and center right, possibly building a broader democratic front against Bolsonaro.
He noted that da Silva has shown the ability to attract a broad range of political allies and voters alike, and said, “Once again, this will be his mission.”
On Friday, da Silva said his party needed renovation, but not detail how. He also said stopping Bolsonaro “is not a task for a single party.”
During his two mandates, da Silva managed to implement a program heavily focused on fighting extreme poverty, without radicalizing his administration or alienating the business sector, Kerche said.
Da Silva is hoping the Supreme Court will deliver a ruling that could cancel the cases in which he is accused of corruption and money laundering — and such a ruling would legally open the path to another presidential run.
The Workers’ Party’s other candidates have lacked the charismatic populist spark that helped da Silva electrify audiences.
Brazil, like much of Latin America, has struggled to shake off a certain cult of personality.
“Unfortunately, right or left, personalities have a greater appeal than institutions,” Melo said.
Diane Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro