In Brazil, Lula’s corruption conviction opens field for 2018 presidential race

Former leader was found guilty of accepting millions worth of bribes from an engineering firm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 2:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 2:30am

The corruption conviction of ­former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a front runner for next year’s presidential ­election, opens the door for an outsider to take power in Latin America’s largest country, political experts said.

Lula, a giant on the Brazilian political scene who led the country from 2003 to 2011, has said he wants to run for president again next year. But if his nearly 10-year sentence is upheld on appeal, ­Lula, a founder of the leftist Workers Party, would be barred from seeking office again for eight years, beginning after any jail time is complete.

Lula, 71, is among a raft of ­Brazilian elites toppled by an epic corruption scandal that has ­battered the nation’s economy, engulfed every major party and deepened public cynicism about politics. It’s a toxic mix that has enraged voters, who are searching for someone to lead them out of the political and economic ­wilderness.

“Brazil is now as polarised as the US, it really has been for years,” said Carlos Melo, a political scientist with Insper, a Sao Paulo business school. “But if Lula is absent it would unquestionably open the space for an outside, very emotional leader – a bit like US President Trump.”

Lula was convicted on Wednesday by Judge Sergio Moro, who found him guilty of accepting 3.7 million reais (HK$8.92 million) worth of bribes from engineering firm OAS SA.

That is the amount prosecutors said the company spent ­refurbishing a beach apartment for Lula in return for his help winning contracts with state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro.

OAS was part of a supplier cartel that prosecutors said fleeced billions of dollars from Petrobras through inflated contracts, funnelling some of the ill-gotten gains to politicians and political parties.

Lula’s lawyers said he is innocent. He will remain free while his lawyers appeal the ruling, which they have characterised as a political witch hunt. The appeals court is expected to take at least eight months to rule.

Operation Car Wash: the sprawling corruption probe that led to Lula’s downfall

Despite his legal woes, the charismatic Lula remains Brazil’s best-known politician. Surveys from the Datafolha polling institute show that in a second-round run-off next year, Lula would beat all contenders with the exception of the environmentalist and two-time presidential candidate ­Marina Silva, with whom he is in a technical tie.

But if Lula cannot run, and with roughly 20 per cent of the electorate undecided on any candidate, the election is up for grabs.

While Silva polled well, many political watchers doubt that the soft-spoken, environmental expert could win, in part because her campaigns have lacked the fiery speeches and ­dramatic flair needed to engage many voters.

Melo said the public’s thirst for showmanship and anti-establishment candidates could give ­a boost to two outsiders: Ciro ­Gomes, a tough-talking former governor, federal minister and congressmen who is now with the Democratic Workers Party; and Joao Doria, a millionaire media mogul and former star of Brazil’s version of The Apprentice.

Gomes, despite his long career in politics, is a rough-and-tumble politician who could easily ­position himself as an anti-government candidate. Loud and politically incorrect, Gomes called unpopular President Michel Temer – himself facing a corruption charge – the “captain of the coup” that led to former president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment last year.

Sergio Praca, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a leading Brazilian University, said he sees the Lula conviction as giving all politicians a deep scare rather than any one candidate a bounce.

“This conviction is a black mark on Brazil’s history. But it is a great moment in the fight against impunity,” Praca said.