Editorial The Economist, 26.03.2016
“I never had access to formal study, as Brazilians know,” wrote Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in an open letter to the supreme court this month. “I’m not a doutor, lettered or with great knowledge of the law,” he wrote. “But I know, like every human being, how to distinguish between right and wrong, what is just and unjust.” It was vintage Lula, reminding poorer Brazilians that he is one of them, that like them he suffers injustice meted out by the lettered classes, and that he, like them, is an honest man. But is he?
The missive was part of an increasingly desperate defence by Brazil’s most important politician of this century. Two years after they began investigating a hydra-headed $2.5 billion corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company, prosecutors are closing in on Brazil’s former president. They think he took gifts from construction companies involved in the Petrobras bribery scandal, which he vehemently denies.
Lula has been charged with concealing ownership of a beachside apartment. Sérgio Moro, the judge leading the probe, had Lula briefly detained to answer questions about that, as well as a country retreat and donations to his institute. Lula insists the properties were borrowed and the donations above board. On his release, he pledged a political campaign to clear his name. Mr Moro then published tapes of his phone calls to allies. In often profane language, Lula cries persecution and accuses the supreme court of cowardice—prompting the emollient open letter.
Only a few years ago he could do no wrong. Born in a dirt-poor family in the north-east, as a child he sold oranges and peanuts on the street. He first came to his country’s notice as the fiery leader of strikes by carworkers during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Having founded the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), he was elected president, at the fourth attempt, in 2002.
In office he combined the pragmatism of a trade-union leader with a determination to help Brazil’s poor. Unlike Hugo Chávez he didn’t harass business. Instead, he decreed big increases in the minimum wage and in social programmes. Helped by a commodity boom, it worked. In eight years 30m left poverty. With his homespun phrases and quick wit, Lula had a unique rapport with ordinary Brazilians. He became a global symbol of progressive social change. “He’s my man,” gushed Barack Obama. Lula left office with an 83% approval rating, having secured the election of his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, a politically clumsy bureaucrat.
So where did it go wrong? On leaving office Lula returned to his modest flat in São Bernado, a suburb of São Paulo. He became an ambassador for Brazilian business, especially the construction companies. He charged around $100,000 a pop for lectures. That is half the going rate for the likes of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. But prosecutors say he received $8m in all, and they doubt all the lectures took place. At the least Lula showed poor judgment in drawing so close to the construction magnates. But was it worse than that? The prosecutors have not so far proved that he has taken gifts through corrupt dealings with Petrobras.
André Singer, a political scientist who once worked for Lula, calls Mr Moro, other judges, the prosecutors and their allies in the media the “Party of Justice”. It has long had Lula in its sights, holding him ultimately responsible for the scheme to funnel tainted cash from Petrobras to the PT and its allies. Lula denies that. His supporters see in such allegations the class hatred that he has always inspired among the better-off, for having grabbed power from them.
Lula is far from the first working-class hero to enjoy the good things in life. He is in part a victim of his own hubris. He developed his own hatred of the centre-right opposition. He sought to isolate it by polarising politics between “the people” and the “neoliberals” and by engineering a ramshackle coalition of opportunists. PT officials were convicted of paying bribes to allies in an earlier scandal. Cornered over this in his first term, he fought back. But iron had entered his soul.
Whether or not he is guilty, Lula has lost respect. According to Datafolha, a pollster, 57% of respondents disapprove of him. That may preclude a return to the presidency. The PT is set for big losses in mayoral elections in October. But at 70, Lula is not finished. His political skills are still unrivalled. “I’m the only person who could set this country on fire,” he told an ally on the tapes (adding that he didn’t want to). Brazil is in for a long fight between the Party of Justice and the leader who has most powerfully embodied the cause of social justice. The tragedy is that they are not on the same side.