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GARANHUNS, Brazil – To many in his hometown, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is a hero who pulled millions from poverty and who deserves to be elected to lead Brazil once again this year. Yet so far, nobody has yet put up posters or banners to promote him in this city of almost 140,000 people, part of a region that will be pivotal in deciding the next leader of Latin America's largest nation.
The jailing of da Silva — and his likely disqualification from the presidential race — has left a huge political question mark over Brazil, nowhere more than in the hardscrabble northeast that was crucial to the victories of da Silva's Workers' Party in Brazil's last four presidential elections. Its 38 million eligible voters are nearly a fourth of the nation's total.
Many say they're still not ready to vote for anyone other than the man known across Brazil as Lula.
"Lula will be the first prisoner elected president," said farmer Jorge Rodrigues de Melo, a childhood neighbor of da Silva. "I believe police will take him from jail to his inauguration."
A booming economy under da Silva's 2003-2010 governments, which included hikes to the minimum wage and several social welfare programs, helped de Melo gain enough extra money he could afford a third horse and buy better hats to protect him from the region's blazing sun.
Although Brazilian law bans da Silva from running because his corruption conviction has been upheld on appeal, the former leader and his party still insist there are ways to get him on the ballot. Paintings, posters and banners in many cities say "Free, Lula!" while others portray him as a crook who should remain jailed, a sign of deep polarization.
In a handful of letters from jail, da Silva has repeated he plans to run, in part because not doing so would be akin to admitting guilt. Da Silva has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
While many die-hard backers may not vote for anybody if da Silva doesn't run, others say they are open to supporting a candidate picked by da Silva. Still others, angry over several years of corruption scandals that have implicated da Silva, say they are looking beyond him, but don't know where.
Natalia Oliveira, who says she is "apolitical" but still adores the former president, says people like her feel lost.
"We feel like orphans," she said at the bar she owns in Brasilia Teimosa, a neighborhood in city of Recife that was transformed from a dangerous slum into a modern beachfront area during Da Silva's second term. "Who will we vote for? It is so sad, but that's where we are at."
A Datafolha institute poll taken in April after the former president was jailed found he had a roughly 2-1 advantage nationwide over his nearest rival, conservative Congressman Jair Bolsonaro. In the northeast, however, da Silva polled at about 50 percent, while all rivals were in single digits.
Da Silva's mark on the northeast would be impossible to erase.
Between the year da Silva took office and 2013, the last year before an economic plunge under successor Dilma Rousseff, the economy in the northeast grew an average of 4.1 percent per year compared to 3.3 percent nationally, according to the central bank.
Meanwhile, social programs and strong economic growth helped change the daily reality for millions: When da Silva was elected, 21.4 million people in the northeast were under the poverty line compared to 9.6 million in 2012.
Da Silva's humble beginnings and everyman charisma also help him identify with voters in the region. Da Silva's family moved from Garanhuns to the southwest state of Sao Paulo, the country's industrial center, when he was 7 years old. As an adult, he rose through the ranks as a metalworkers union leader, eventually winning the presidency during his fourth campaign.
That track record is why 21 percent of Brazilians polled by Datafolha in April said they wouldn't vote if da Silva is not on the ballot, although voting is supposedly mandatory. The same poll also said two-thirds of da Silva supporters would back whoever he endorses.
They include even some conservative northeasterners like Livio Chaves, who owns a gas station and raises goats in Sertania, a city of 35,000 in the dry lands of Pernambuco state. Chaves said his vote will be based on the billions of dollars in investment to irrigate local farms with waters from the transfer of the Sao Francisco River.
The project, which provides water to four drought-prone states, stands as one of the most ambitious undertakings of da Silva's time in office.
"I want the continuation of a project that helped us in the northeast and still needs to be completed," said Chaves. "I want (Lula). If not him, someone from here who worked with him."
So far, Ciro Gomes, the former governor of the northeastern state of Ceara, is the only candidate with both regional credentials and experience working with da Silva. Gomes started the Sao Francisco project as a minister in da Silva's first administration, but doesn't belong to the Workers' Party. Polls have consistently found he garners about 10 percent.
While Bolsonaro until recently was largely unknown in the region, the conservative from Rio de Janeiro has softened his attacks on the former president in hopes of luring disappointed supporters.
"People want an honest president and Bolsonaro is that. Lula's mask has fallen. He is a saboteur," said martial arts teacher Daniel Bastos, who works in a gym in Recife's upscale Boa Viagem neighborhood.
Brazil's top electoral court is expected to announce a decision on a da Silva appeal to get on the ballot in August. The Workers' Party has until Sept. 17 to replace its jailed founder on the ticket. Besides the conviction for money-laundering and influence peddling, da Silva has been charged in seven other corruption cases that are pending trial.
Back in Garanhuns, local Workers' Party chairman Eraldo dos Santos, da Silva's cousin, believes it's time for the former president to pick a successor even if he believes the jailing of da Silva was unjust.
"I believe this is a coup, that Lula should be freed and be our candidate. But we also must think about the future," said dos Santos, wearing jeans and a straw hat while showing reporters the area where da Silva used to live. "Lula is not immortal and we progressives need to put his ideas forward."