Many Brazilians Unmoved by Lula Talk of Presidential Bid

  • Former president testifies for almost five hours in court case
  • Accused of corruption, Lula leads polls for 2018 election

When former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signaled he wants to make a comeback bid for the country’s top job, few in Latin America’s largest economy paid much attention.

In a video tape of the deposition from a court hearing on corruption charges released on Wednesday evening, the 71-year-old left-wing leader described the accusations against him as a "dirty fable" and suggested that current circumstances are forcing him to rethink his political ambitions. "I’m saying loud and clear, I will want to run for the presidency of the republic again."

Yet the morning after, newspaper headlines ignored Lula’s possible return to politics, focusing instead on the minutiae of his defense against allegations he received benefits from construction companies. Government and congressional leaders returned to discussing President Michel Temer’s reform agenda. Many pundits say Lula’s possible presidential bid is more of a survival strategy than a likelihood.

"He’s trying to save himself and his party with a threat he’ll find hard to carry out," said Andre Cesar, a Brasilia-based political analyst. "Allegations of corruption, economic mismanagement, his rejection levels - nobody is really taking this ’I’d like to be a candidate’ talk too serious."

Still, the man who currently leads the opinion polls for the 2018 presidential elections drew thousands of red-shirted loyalists to the southern city of Curitiba for his first face-to-face meeting with Judge Sergio Moro, the lead jurist in the sprawling corruption probe known as Operation Carwash.

In his testimony to Moro, the former president vehemently denied the charges against him, and said he was the victim of a witch-hunt. "It’s as if the media, the public prosecutor’s office were seeking Lula, dead or alive," he said.

After the deposition, Lula gave a defiant speech to supporters gathered in the city’s main square, saying that never before in Brazilian history had someone been as persecuted as he had been in recent years.

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‘No Plan B’

Lula is a defendant in five separate criminal cases. Among the allegations is that he received upgrades to properties carried out by construction companies. State witnesses also allege that millions of reais in off-the-books donations were made to the Workers’ Party, known as the PT, on his watch.

For Humberto Costa, a senator from the PT and close friend of Lula’s, the hounding of the former president has only strengthened him politically and cemented his position as the PT’s candidate. “The party has no Plan B,” Costa said.

With roughly a year and a half to go until the elections, some analysts argue the polls show name recognition rather than actual support for a candidate. Moro, who is second in the polls, has said he doesn’t intend to run for president.

The next steps are uncertain as Moro determines whether evidence collection should continue or not. A new deposition might be requested, according to sources close to the case.

If the judge does eventually find him guilty, and the judgment is upheld on appeal, Lula will be barred from running for public office and may be imprisoned. A definitive verdict, however, may only come months before elections due in October next year.

Unless Lula is locked up or otherwise impeded by the law, he remains a viable candidate, said Thomaz Favaro, an associate director at Control Risks consulting firm.

"Barring a judicial ruling against him, we see him as a political contender," Favaro said in an interview.

— With assistance by Robert Jameson

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