Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Does Lula’s Conviction Mean for Brazil?

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on July 12 was convicted and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison in connection with the massive corruption scheme involving state-run oil company Petrobras. Lula has denied wrongdoing, and his lawyers have vowed to appeal. What does Lula’s conviction and sentencing mean for his political future and that of his Workers’ Party? To what extent is there public support for the prosecution of politicians in the Petrobras case, and will the still-popular Lula see the sentencing diminish his support? What is the reason behind the Brazilian federal police force’s disbanding of the task force behind the Petrobras probe last month, and how will that move affect the investigation?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “In recent years, Brazil’s governing institutions have been discredited and debilitated by the graft and corruption that pervades the county’s politics and large segments of its business community. Successive corruption scandals have today left Brazil in political turmoil. Its government is deeply distrusted and disliked, virtually without public support. Under these circumstances, the conviction of Brazil’s most revered politician ever, former President Lula da Silva, on charges of graft, might be viewed as good news, and a sign that Brazil has a courageous and competent judicial system that is committed to defeating corruption and demonstrating that no one is above the law. There are reasons, however, why some Brazilians are not cheering. Many are convinced that the judiciary is acting unfairly, with visible political bias. They ask, appropriately, why Lula, the leader of the leftist Workers’ Party, appears headed for jail, while many others with even more evidence pointing to their guilt, including President Temer, continue to exercise power. If Lula did what he is accused of, and the evidence to support that conclusion is robust, he certainly should not be allowed to run for office again. He should be jailed, regardless of his popularity or earlier contributions. But so should others who have committed similar criminal acts. Some have been punished, but many still hold positions of power. If they are not vigorously pursued, sympathy and support for Lula, who now leads all other potential candidates ahead of the 2018 election, could grow stronger. Today, Brazil is confronting an increasingly open conflict between an energized and active judiciary and the country’s Congress and presidency—a conflict that could well become as disruptive and damaging as the corruption itself. While the judges and prosecutors are winning many battles, they are unlikely, fighting alone, to win the war against corruption. It will take all three branches of Brazil’s government, working hand in glove, to begin to bring corruption—from which politics will never be free—under minimal control.”

Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “Former President Lula’s conviction was widely anticipated. However, its formalization is a big blow to his ambition of returning to office next year. If he loses the appeal he filed in a superior court, he will not be permitted, by law, to run in 2018. The court’s verdict must be announced in some months. Meanwhile, Lula will be free to campaign as he has been doing. He still faces four other lawsuits in which he is a defendant on various charges, from obstruction to justice to money laundering, corruption and conspiracy. His Workers’ Party (PT), is not indicating that it intends to run any candidate other than Lula in next year’s presidential election. Lula has always been larger than PT, and he still is. Other leftist parties also have no one who has the same chance of gathering more than 20 percent of the votes as does Lula. There is strong support among Brazilians for the prosecution and conviction of politicians suspected of bribery. All polls show support margins between 85 percent and 95 percent. In Lula’s case, he still enjoys the allegiance of some 30 percent of voters. But it is possible that now he has been formally convicted, this percentage will decrease. The federal police force is suffering from budget restrictions as are all other departments of federal government. This will delay its anti-corruption and other actions, but public support for these actions will not allow them to end.”

Charles H. Blake, professor of political science at James Madison University’s School of Public & International Affairs: “The implications of former Brazilian President da Silva’s conviction depend on the outcome of the initial appeal process because, if this conviction were confirmed in advance of the elections, then Lula da Silva could not be a candidate for the Workers’ Party (PT) in the 2018 elections. The PT has other potential presidential candidates, but none has da Silva’s visibility and breadth of support. If da Silva’s judicial appeal is successful, the impact on his support could be minimal while if the verdict is upheld, then his level of support as a candidate becomes less directly relevant. To date, opinion polls reveal support for a continuation of the investigations and prosecutions but also skepticism in two-fifths of the population regarding whether Operation Car Wash will reduce political corruption in Brazil. Part of this skepticism emerges from the supposition that Eduardo Cunha and Michel Temer (two non-PT figures in Dilma Rousseff’s governing coalition) supported her impeachment to try to protect themselves and other allies from prosecution. The Temer government’s reduction in the budget for the federal police and the recent decision to disband the federal police task force central to the Operation Car Wash investigations have been viewed through this politicized lens—especially in light of the bribery charges levied against Temer in June. While the police reorganization may hamper the investigations’ effectiveness, it will be difficult to cease the investigations because many of the businesspeople implicated have already named specific politicians and alleged specific instances of corruption.”

Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues, professor at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil and member of Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicos y Sociales in Buenos Aires: “Judge Sérgio Moro’s leadership of the Operation Car Wash is not only fueled by legal standards but also by political ones. That is clear in former President Lula’s case, conviction and sentencing. The lack of evidence connecting Lula to the accusations reveals a methodology that has been criticized as a ‘judicial state of exception.’ In fact, some basic civil rights have been sacrificed in the name of combating corruption and impunity. But this is not the only problem regarding Moro’s judgment. His timing is political rather than legal. Lula’s sentencing occurred in the middle of two important political facts that weakened the country’s democratic rule: the congressional approval of a labor reform that suppresses social rights and President Temer’s political maneuver to escape a conviction in the Chamber of Deputies’ constitutional committee. There is strong support from the public for combating corruption, but there is also widespread criticism regarding the way this fight has been performed. Still with a huge popular support, which may also rise, Lula will fight to reverse his conviction and make viable his candidacy. Also, why did Judge Moro not send Lula to jail? Perhaps to preserve Operation Car Wash from growing attempts to dismantle it.”

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