Nostalgia could be Lula’s sharpest weapon in Brazilian election

Once-jailed former president challenges Bolsonaro with anti-poverty record of boom

When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva steps onto a stage in São Paulo on Saturday to formally launch his sixth campaign for Brazil’s presidency he will do so as the clear favourite. It is a remarkable turnaround for the former union leader who spent the last contest in jail but, four years on, is now in a strong position to win an unprecedented third mandate to govern Latin America’s biggest country, two decades after he first won power.

Polls give the former president a clear lead over the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro with over half of those surveyed saying they will not vote for the former army captain under any circumstances after a first term marred by scandal, serial incompetence and authoritarian sabre-rattling. Lula in contrast has positioned himself as the national unity candidate by picking Geraldo Alckmin, the conservative rival he beat to win a second term in 2006, to be his running mate this time out.

Last week, the United Nations’ human rights committee ruled the corruption inquiry that led to Lula’s imprisonment – thus preventing him from running against Bolsonaro in 2018 – had violated due process. Lula hailed the judgment as “an extraordinary cleansing of the soul”. Though Brazil’s supreme court had already annulled the convictions for which he served 580 days in jail, the UN’s largely symbolic ruling will help deflect efforts by Bolsonaro to refocus public attention on the corruption scandals that marred Lula’s Workers’ Party’s 13 years in power until 2016.

Controversial statements

But in recent weeks the confidence around Lula’s team has started to give way to some nervousness. Several supporters have even gone public with criticism after a series of controversial statements have led some to call into question the 76-year old’s previously sound political touch.

At a May Day rally on Sunday in a speech remarkably short by his usual standards, Lula was forced to apologise for saying the day beforethat Bolsonaro "doesn't like people, he only likes the police". Brazil's state police forces are well-organised and politically influential and have been relentlessly courted by the president. Lula was also heavily criticised for suggesting that sending groups of 50 union members to knock on the homes of federal deputies and "talk" with their families would have more impact than demonstrations in the capital Brasília.

These gaffes at a time when he is supposed to be reaching out to the centre ground have focused attention on the campaign team around Lula with power-struggles ongoing for control over its communications strategy. Among the criticisms levelled against it has been the failure to compete with Bolsonaro’s sophisticated social media operation that has allowed him to bypass largely critical traditional media. Lula has also failed to reassure financial markets about the future direction of fiscal policy at a time of growing unease at Bolsonaro’s increasingly reckless management of the public finances.

Seasoned campaigner

Bolsonaro has used his control over Brazil’s administrative machine to put together more competitive slates in key states than seemed possible a year ago, using the federal budget to buy political support. Thus despite picking Alckmin as his running mate, several of Brazil’s traditional centrist parties are yet to join Lula’s coalition as many within their ranks lobby for the right to align with the president, especially in regions where Bolsonaro is strongest.

But despite the recent turbulence around him Lula, Brazil’s most seasoned political campaigner, has sought to remain calm. “I am tranquil and certain we have all the conditions to win the elections,” he said in a radio interview earlier this week. He knows he is attempting to become the first candidate to prevent an incumbent president being re-elected. But he is the first challenger who can point to his own time in the job when the economy boomed and millions were lifted out of poverty. At a time of high unemployment, rampant inflation and growing hunger, nostalgia is set to be Lula’s most potent electoral weapon.