Three years ago, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva languished in a prison cell.
The former president of Brazil, who led the country from 2003 to 2010, served months with a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. His political career seemed to be over.
So when he took to the stage on a fine recent night in this working-class city outside of Rio de Janeiro, smiling broadly as a crowd of thousands chanted his name, it was a comeback once unimaginable.
Lula, as he is widely known, appears poised to win Brazil’s presidential election. The question, polls suggest, is not whether he will beat far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, but when.
Recent polls have shown Lula with around 45% of the vote compared to Bolsonaro’s 35%, putting Lula within striking distance of winning outright by capturing at least half of the vote in the first round of voting. Sunday vote. If no candidate wins more than 50%, the top two finishers will go to a runoff election on October 1. 30
A victory for Lula, who was released from prison in 2019 after a court ruled that the judge who oversaw his corruption trial was biased, would culminate one of the most remarkable political resurgences in recent memory.
It would be a testament not only to the determination and populist appeal of a man former President Obama once called “the world’s most popular president,” but also to growing concerns about rising inequality that have catapulted a new wave to power. of leftists in Latin America. America in recent years.
Analysts say Lula’s dominance in the polls has a lot to do with Bolsonaro, 67, an outspoken former military officer who has faced his own corruption allegations and is widely believed to have botched Brazil’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Lula has also cleverly tapped into Brazilians’ longing for the more prosperous days of his presidency, when the country went from the 13th to the 7th largest economy in the world and, as Lula often points out on the campaign trail, the average people could afford beef
“We had some really good years,” said Marcelo Franca, a 62-year-old writer. “People are nostalgic about that.”
But virtually everyone agrees that if Lula wins, he will have a hard time replicating his earlier success because the political and economic terrain has changed dramatically.
Brazil’s growth during Lula’s first two terms in office was fueled by rising global demand for raw materials such as soybeans and iron, as well as the discovery of the largest oil reserves in the country’s history.
Today, the nation, like much of the rest of the world, is trying to climb out of the economic crater left by the pandemic as it battles double-digit inflation and rising fuel costs.
“It’s a much more complicated world,” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Council of the Americas. “It’s not as much fun being president now as it was in the 2000s.”
And if Lula wins, he will be tasked with governing a nation that has never been more divided.
Since the corruption case against him and the impeachment of his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, polarization has become more entrenched, with the left blaming the right for manipulating the justice system and Bolsonaro supporters vilifying Lula as a thief who plans to steal the elections.
Bolsonaro has stoked those tensions by borrowing from the playbook of his ally, former President Trump, by casting doubt on the integrity of Brazil’s voting system, which the US insists is sound. Bolsonaro has suggested he can reject the election results and has hinted at violence, saying he sees only three possibilities for his future: “prison, being assassinated, or winning.”
The tense atmosphere was evident at Lula’s rally in Nova Iguaçu, where spectators were searched for weapons and Lula’s chest was swollen in a bulletproof vest.
At 76, the candidate’s trademark beard and shock of curly hair have turned white. His famously raspy voice has taken on a deeper tone since he suffered from throat cancer in 2011.
But when Lula began to speak out, criticizing classism, racism and Bolsonaro, for many it was as if time had stopped.
“People don’t choose to be poor,” he said. “We want to work, we want to eat well, we want our children to have good clothes and shoes and three meals a day.”
It could have been two decades ago, when Lula first took office, or half a century ago, when he drew national attention as a bellicose union leader challenging the country’s military dictatorship.
Born into a poor family in northeastern Brazil, Lula dropped out of school at age 12 to help support his siblings and mother. A few years later, he lost his little finger in an accident at an auto parts factory.
After organizing steelworker strikes that helped topple the dictatorship in 1985, Lula ran three unsuccessful presidential campaigns: in 1989, 1994 and 1998.
He won election in 2002 after compromising with the same powerful business interests he had long criticized.
It was a heady moment for leftists in Latin America.
The so-called pink tide had brought to power a whole cast of them, from Argentina to Bolivia and Ecuador.
The figurehead of the movement was President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a self-styled Marxist who nationalized key industries and redistributed wealth to the poor while twisting the constitution to stay in power.
Lula stood out as less ideologue and more pragmatic. He chose a Wall Street banker to head the Central Bank of Brazil, and when other leftist governments defaulted on international loans, Brazil paid them back early.
In that way, he is a model for the current class of center-left politicians who have won elections in recent years in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Panama and Honduras.
Several leaders of what analysts call the “new pink tide,” including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have borrowed elements from Lula’s trademark social, educational and health programs, albeit with mixed results.
That’s largely because his program, which provided $30-a-month cash transfers to 12 million working-class families, led to such sweeping changes.
During Lula’s term, 20 million people were lifted out of poverty and the number of Afro-Brazilians attending university tripled.
Rafaela Albergaria was one of those new students, becoming the first person in her family to go to university.
“I am the embodiment of Lula’s policies,” he said.
A social worker from a working-class town outside Rio de Janeiro, Albergaria is running for the state legislature this year under Lula’s Workers Party and is part of a national movement that has encouraged black women to run for office. public. She carries a red tote bag emblazoned with Lula’s face, and her campaign posters include photos of him hugging her in a bear hug.
Albergaria, 32, appreciates Lula’s support.
But she is a reminder that if she wins, she will face pressure from those on the left calling for more radical action on issues like gender equality, police brutality and climate change.
“We don’t just want Lula,” Albergaria said. “We want more.”