Former Brazil President da Silva inspires cult-like loyalty

It was standing-room-only in the 1,000-seat auditorium in Sao Paulo and the crowd gamely sang along with the performers on stage. But over the course of three hours, the tension built as the crowd grew impatient and repeatedly called for "Lula!"

When former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva finally stood up to speak, he held the audience rapt for nearly an hour. Decades after he entered the national stage, the 72-year-old is still a magnetic figure and a serious candidate for the presidency despite a corruption conviction, which was unanimously upheld on appeal Wednesday.

The master politician even used those legal woes to frame his candidacy as a struggle against elites who want to crush his left-leaning Workers' Party, which vows to help the poor.

"They sold the idea to the people that Brazil had caught a disease, a serious disease called the Workers' Party and they needed to get rid of this sickness," he said, referring to his detractors. "They anesthetized Brazilian society. .... Only now people are waking up from the anesthesia!"

Da Silva has been convicted of corruption, faces graft charges in six other cases, might be barred from running in the October vote and bears some responsibility for the country's recent economic collapse.

But he has a deft human touch, is a gifted public speaker with an inspiring rags-to-riches story, and he oversaw one of the largest expansions of Brazil's economy. Whether they despise or adore him, many Brazilians say his appeal lies in how helped the impoverished masses.

"If they don't kill him and they don't declare him ineligible, he will win," said Washington Balbino da Silva, a 43-year-old doorman in Sao Paulo who used to support da Silva but says he became disillusioned after several corruption charges were leveled. "He did lots for the poor."

The most recent Datafolha poll, conducted in the final days of November, showed da Silva would lead in a first round of voting in the October election, with 36 or 37 percent of the vote. In all potential second-round scenarios, he would win. In fact, since his conviction in July, his poll numbers have improved. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Da Silva's failed legal appeal Wednesday should make him ineligible to run for office under Brazilian law, but the former president still has several avenues for appeal and ultimately the country's electoral court makes decisions about candidacies.

Da Silva's power is such that he will define the presidential race, whether in or out.

"It doesn't matter if he's convicted, if he's in jail, if he's in his house, if he's just in the beginning of the election and then he must step down for another candidate; he will definitely be a piece in this puzzle," said Vitor Oliveira, director of analysis at Pulso Publico, a political consulting firm.

The cult of Lula, as da Silva is universally known in Brazil, begins with his compelling personal history, which could be a metaphor for Brazil's own transformation in recent decades from poor backwater to economic and political powerhouse.

Born in a two-room house with a dirt floor and no bathroom, da Silva started work at 7 and got a factory job at 14. He first came to national attention as a firebrand union leader who stood up to the 1964-1985 military government. He went on to found the Workers' Party and won the presidency in 2002.

The symbolism of his win cannot be overstated: Brazil suffers from gaping inequality and there is little upward economic mobility for the poor and working classes. Political advancement might be even more unattainable since Brazil has long been ruled by an entrenched elite, and many of today's politicians are the descendants of people who have held power since colonial times. Many are seen as ignorant of and uninterested in the daily struggles of the majority of Brazilians.

Da Silva's wild rise did not stop there. His time in office coincided with a global commodities boom that led to robust economic growth.

While he cannot take exclusive credit for the country's phenomenal economic success, he is credited with sharing those gains with members of Brazil's lower classes. Inequality, which was already falling when he took office, continued to plummet on his watch through programs like the Family Grant, which gives poor households money for food, school and health expenses.

He left office with an 87 percent approval rating and former U.S. President Barack Obama once called him "the most popular politician on Earth."

Brazil's massive "Car Wash" probe has since revealed that the boom was also accompanied by unprecedented graft. Prosecutors allege that da Silva's Workers' Party was at the heart of a scheme to inflate state contracts awarded to private companies to generate billions of dollars that was then used to pay bribes and kickbacks to keep the contracts, the favors and the scheme itself going.

In July, da Silva was convicted of money laundering and corruption. Prosecutors alleged that he was offered a renovated beachfront apartment by construction giant OAS in exchange for doing favors for the company. Da Silva says he is innocent and argues that the country's traditional elite is persecuting him precisely because of his success in raising millions out of poverty.

"Suddenly they criminalized the state policies that we laid out," da Silva told the audience in Sao Paulo. "They started a prosecution of lies against the Workers' Party and against Lula."

While some who continue to support da Silva may believe in his innocence, others support him despite believing the charges against him.

"These things are quickly forgotten," said Caroline Marques, a 22-year-old graphic designer, who says she still supports da Silva. "They're all thieves, but he's the lesser evil."


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