Brazil’s Democracy In Jeopardy As Lula’s Case Continues To Divide The Nation


After being sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has divided the nation like no other politician in Brazilian history. Known for his strong advocacy for solving the long standing issue of inequality, Lula pulled more than 67M people out of poverty and into the middle and upper classes during his 8 years in office according to the Financial Times. There are many people who, in spite of looming corruption charges, continue to view Lula as the defender of the poor and the ideal choice in the October presidential elections. However, there are also many that believe that no one is above the law and the elections must proceed without the popular Lula. Early polls suggest Lula would be the clear winner come October, leaving many to question the future of democracy and therefore, the future of inequality in Brazil.

Growing up in a small town outside of Caetes located in the northeast of Brazil, Lula came from humble beginnings as he and his family struggled to stay afloat. After moving to Sao Paulo with his family on the back of a truck at the age of 7, Lula had to quit school after the second grade to work in order to support his family according to the Financial Times. By the age of 19, Lula was working as a operator in the automobile parts industry and was exposed to several injustices unions faced when dealing with the Brazilian military government in power. Inspired by his experiences, Lula joined the labour movement and quickly rose through the ranks in the Steel Workers Union, becoming president of the union in 1975. From Union president to the nation’s president, Lula dedicated his career to the reduction of inequalities in Brazil. During his 8 years in office, Lula made remarkable achievements including the introduction of several social programs, higher minimum wages, monthly stipends and affordable housing, as well as the removal of Brazil from the UN World Hunger Map according to TeleSUR. After his two consecutive terms ended in 2011, Lula left office as one of the world’s most loved politicians. However, as Brazil continues to struggle in its recovery from the 2014 recession, the nation’s worst in history, those who benefited under Lula are desperately trying to hold on to what they have gained.

Over the last 4 years, the justice system in Brazil has pursued and prosecuted business leaders from Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company, Odebrecht, Brazil’s largest construction company, and high level politicians who have been involved in massive corruption schemes. Lava Jato (the Car Wash Investigation) which led to Lula’s conviction, was the largest probe into criminal activity at the high level in Brazil’s history. It revealed a wide spread and well connected web of bribes and corruption. Lula was found guilty last year of accepting a beach-front apartment from OAS, a construction company, in return for government contracts, resulting in a 12 year prison sentence. Lula may also be faced with additional charges, including acting in favour of Odebrecht, a multinational conglomerate and partner of Petrobras, to secure a $1B line of credit for their projects in exchange for funding the Worker’s Party politicians according to Forbes. Lula was not the only one impacted by the investigation, for politicians from all of the major parties including the Brazilian Democratic Movement, the Brazilian Social Democracy and Lula’s party the Worker’s Party, were also convicted.

Following his conviction, Lula filed for appeal, making the petition of habeas corpus to the supreme court. Lula remained free during this appeal process and continued to campaign across the country for his Presidential candidacy, drawing in huge crowds of supporters. However on April 5th 2018, the appeal was rejected 6 votes to 5 and under Brazil’s Ficha Limpa (Clean Record) law, those with convictions confirmed by the first appeal are barred from holding public office for eight years and they must begin serving their sentences immediately according to The Economist. Lula’s lawyers have now taken the case to the UNHRC, who announced earlier this month that they would be initiating a formal investigation. According to TeleSUR, the UNHRC has ordered the Brazilian government to defend its position against Lula and his 6 complaints regarding human rights violations. They further add that any failure to comply with these measures indicates an obstruction to the UNHRC investigation and its results.

Before Lula went to prison, he reassured his supporters that he was innocent, accusing his enemies of fabricating charges to destroy his presidential bid. Several protests have taken place outside the prison in which he stays, revolving around the theory that Lula, along with 6 others of the Worker’s Party, are merely victims of a political witch hunt conducted by conservative parties, backed by army generals and high net worth voters according to the Wall Street Journal. Lula was the first president to truly fight for inequality and many people believe this to be a reason he has been targeted by the more wealthy. Furthermore, his supporters believe that he was subjected to an unfair trial and appeal process, thereby breaching his basic human rights. The speed at which Lula’s appeal came before the court put’s the state’s motives into question, for they may have been more focused on candidate registration deadlines rather than the law according to the Guardian. People believe there was a severe lack of evidence against him as well as an absence of impartially, going as far as to say there was a distinct political bias against politicians from the Worker’s Party. There are claims that the only evidence presented was a verbal confession of an already convicted corporate criminal, who had ulterior motives in seeking a plea deal. Lula’s defence lawyers have urged the Brazilian government to release Lula from solitary confinement, allow him access to medial treatment and to campaign in the Presidential elections guaranteeing his full political rights and lastly, unfreeze his assets to allow him access to legal representation. Ultimately, the supporters denounce the Car Wash investigation as a whole because it questions the principles of democracy and the right of people to choose their governments. On April 7th Lula told his supporters, “if it is a crime to send poor blacks to university, to enable the poor to buy cars, to travel by plane, to own their own home… if that’s the crime I committed, I will continue to be a criminal,” according to the Economist.

Protestors have also broke out from those calling for Lula’s imprisonment, reiterating the notion that no one is above the law. Regardless of political or economic status, a person involved in a crime should be held responsible. The country has been plagued with corruption and impunity, and many believe that the Car Wash investigation has finally made a lasting impact. In just 4 years, more than 100 people have been convicted, with their sentences totalling over 1600 years in prison according to the Wall Street Journal. This is the first time in history that the Brazilian courts have gone after and imprisoned leading politicians and corporate executives, showing Brazil and the rest of the world that they are serious about the crackdown. Corruption can make it difficult for a nation to remain competitive and attract investment, therefore this public display of “draining the swamp” can actually provide new economic opportunities for the people and reduce inequalities in the future. Ending the norm of impunity and corruption would in the long term improve the democratic process in Brazil, making the release of Lula a double edged sword. In specific to Lula’s case, in the past politicians guilty of criminal activity would just hire a good lawyer and avoid jail for years by appealing to the slow-moving higher courts. However in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that any defendant who loses a first appeal can be forced to start their sentence while filing any further appeals. In the case of Lula, the courts refused to make an exception, as this would have set a precedent which would allow other convicted politicians and business leaders to seek the same treatment. Sérgio Moro, the Brazilian judge responsible for Car Wash convictions denies the courts have in any way shown biases towards any particular party, and also says the courts have nothing to hide because the evidence is public and anyone can examine it to form their own conclusions according to the Financial Times.

Despite Lula’s conviction, 37% of Brazilians said they would vote for him, making him the most popular candidate for the Presidential elections in October according to The Economist. However, his imprisonment will likely make it impossible for him to run considering the law states that no individual inducted by an appeals court my run for public office. Aside from the legal restrictions, being behind bars means that Lula will have difficulties staying at the forefront of the political debate. Regardless of these facts, the Worker’s Party of Brazil still intends to announce Lula as it’s leader. Excluding the Worker’s Party, Jair Bolsonaro, far-right populist politician of the Social Liberal Party  currently leads the polls followed by centre-left environmentalist Marina Silva of the Sustainability Network (REDE) Party and leftist Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party according to the Financial Times. Realistically, the Worker’s Party may have to replace Lula with another candidate such as ex-mayor of Sao Paulo, Fernando Haddad or former governor of Bahia, Jacques Wagner. Neither of these candidates has more than 3%, so it will be crucial to get Lula’s endorsement in order to change their fate according to the Economist. Lula has a lot of influence therefore whoever he backs could draw a lot of support.

Regardless of Lula’s wrongdoings, the country needs to have a fair election, as it is an essential component of any democracy. As the president of the Supreme Court, Cármen Lúcia Rocha said “We are living in times of intolerance and intransigence against people and institutions. Without democracy, there is no respect for the law, nor hope for justice and ethics” according to the Wall Street Journal.  Corruption is the second greatest issue plaguing Brazil today, but inequality it still number one and it must be dealt with accordingly. If mainstream politicians keep getting convicted, there is the risk of radicalization in the government. For example, without Lula in the race, next in the polls is Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party, who openly calls for a return to military dictatorship according to the Financial Times. At the same time, battling corruption can take years and incremental successes like the Car Wash investigation can have a lasting impacting on norms, and in turn democracy. A solution that may work in favour of both positions is to extend the presidential candidacy period in order to allow for adequate time for mainstream parties plagued with corruption to find strong leaders to run. This has been the major concern for the Worker’s Party, as they have not yet been able to find someone as charismatic and influential as Lula. Lula cannot be the only shining star out there and at the same time the nation should not have to comprise it’s values for strong leadership. An election without a leader like Lula, who dedicated his career to fighting for inequality, endangers the Brazilian democracy and the nation simply cannot afford to elect an inadequate leader. Parties must be able to continue to search for candidates that can continue the success gained by the Car Wash Investigation as well as maintain democratic principles. It may be worth sacrificing a small extension in time to elect a new president if it will mean that the nation will make significant progress towards ending inequality over the next 4 to 8 years.

Adelaide Matos

MBA Candidate 2019 at University of Toronto
I am currently an MBA student at the University of Toronto with an interest in economic development. My background prior to the MBA is in Civil Engineering and I have been working at an engineering consulting firm for the past 2.5 years. I am a Toronto native with hopes of one day travelling the world to pursue international development projects. In my spare time, I enjoy playing soccer and board games with friends.

About Adelaide Matos

I am currently an MBA student at the University of Toronto with an interest in economic development. My background prior to the MBA is in Civil Engineering and I have been working at an engineering consulting firm for the past 2.5 years. I am a Toronto native with hopes of one day travelling the world to pursue international development projects. In my spare time, I enjoy playing soccer and board games with friends.