Authors: Editors from World Politics Review

Posted on: World Politics Review | January 31st, 2018


On Jan. 24, a Brazilian appeals court upheld corruption charges against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Despite the ruling, Lula, as he is popularly known, still leads the polls ahead of presidential elections slated for Oct. 7. In an email interview, Kurt Weyland, a professor in the department of government at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books on Brazil and Latin America, discusses what’s next for Lula, his leftist Workers’ Party and Brazil’s corruption-plagued democracy.

WPR: After his corruption conviction was upheld, what can we expect from Lula going forward?

Kurt Weyland: It is likely that Lula will vigorously continue his pre-campaign for the presidency in the hope of generating enough popular momentum that the electoral authorities will be reluctant to bar his candidacy. As the Workers’ Party claimed in an official pronouncement, Lula’s own political clout will impede plans to keep him out of the presidential race. Lula is gambling that his status as the clear, strong frontrunner will produce sufficient domestic and international pressure as to make a ban illegitimate and therefore politically infeasible. At the same time, Lula and his lawyers will exhaust all options for legal appeal, taking his case to the Superior Court of Justice and perhaps ultimately the Supreme Court.

But Brazil’s judicial institutions, including the Superior Electoral Court, have demonstrated a great deal of independence and immunity to political pressures. Therefore, the Superior Court of Justice is unlikely to overturn the unanimous decision of the appeals court, and the Superior Electoral Court will probably reject Lula’s candidacy.

If that happens, Lula will have two options. First, he could support another politician from his Workers’ Party, who would be a stand-in for Lula in the way that Hector Campora served as a stand-in for Juan Peron when he was banned from running in Argentina’s presidential election of 1973. But this is a risky strategy: Such placeholders often become independent upon reaching the presidency and shake off the overbearing control efforts of the true party leader, as Lenin Moreno has done in Ecuador by pushing aside Rafael Correa. Second, and more likely, Lula and the Workers’ Party could boycott the presidential election, using their time out of power to regroup after the political fallout of all the pending corruption scandals and the 2016 impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-picked candidate who succeeded him as president in 2011. Given that the Workers’ Party is comparatively well-organized and has a long-term perspective, a prolonged period in opposition holds some attraction as an opportunity for reinvigoration.

WPR: What is the current state of the Workers’ Party? What will losing Lula mean for the party ahead of the next election?

Weyland: The Workers’ Party has responded to the spate of corruption scandals and Rousseff’s impeachment with a stiff upper lip, condemning Rousseff’s completely legal removal in surprisingly strident terms as a “coup,” and suggesting the risk of violence if Lula is convicted and barred from the election. But in fact, the party is in a very difficult position in the short run. Its old promise of offering clean government lies in shambles, undermining support among the educated middle classes, one of the party’s traditional mainstays of support. Moreover, Rousseff’s impeachment has deprived the party of governmental patronage and control over social programs, which had allowed it to capture a new constituency in northeastern Brazil, a poor region where a radical right-wing populist, Jair Bolsonaro, is now starting to gain traction.

Beyond these problems, the Workers’ Party also faces a longstanding internal dilemma. Since its founding, the party has built a strong organizational apparatus and cultivated support from various societal groupings, especially labor unions and landless rural workers. But at the same time, the party has revolved around the leadership of one person, Lula. The importance of “the big man” has been obvious for years, as Lula has always won much higher vote shares in presidential elections than the Workers’ Party has garnered in congressional races. Lula’s unusually important and dominant role has long helped, but the party will require restructuring during the coming decade.

Lula’s pre-eminence means that the party will have no promising presidential candidate if he is barred from the upcoming contest. A boycott therefore has attraction, since without Lula, the Workers’ Party would most likely lose anyway. In the short run, Lula’s legal troubles depress the party’s electoral chances and political prospects greatly.

But from a medium- and long-term perspective, Lula’s involuntary move to the sidelines could be an opportunity for the party to finally start the indispensable transition to political life after Lula. It is crucial for a new set of leaders to emerge, and for the party to resolve the inherent tension between organizational strength and the dominant leadership of one person.

WPR: What have the corruption scandals across Brazil’s political spectrum meant for its democracy and rule of law?

Weyland: In the short run, the corruption scandals have seriously shaken popular trust in Brazil’s democracy, which has fallen to dangerously low levels, even by comparison to other countries in Latin America. Because much of the established political class has been discredited, ample space for populist outsiders has opened up, as evident in the current popularity of Bolsonaro. The moderate center has no political leader with the prospects of turning into an attractive presidential candidate or establishing a new party of clean politicians. Therefore, the prevailing political discontent is unlikely to give rise to a move toward democratic renovation in the upcoming presidential contest. If Lula is barred from the race, as is likely, there will be a good portion of the electorate without political direction. These voters may follow outsiders, including Bolsonaro, on a whim. The election is therefore highly unpredictable, and there is a considerable risk of outcomes that are detrimental to democracy, such as the victory of an outsider who is tempted to resort to autocratic measures.

In the medium term, however, the corruption scandals and the consistent and determined prosecution of many of these misdeeds will significantly strengthen the rule of law. The reassertion of legal rules and principles sends a powerful message, most directly to politicians and businesspeople, yet also to the citizenry. The deterrent effect of these trials and prison sentences is massive. The old, resigned acquiescence—captured in Brazilians’ familiar sigh, “He steals, but he gets things done”—is being replaced by popular revulsion and principled rejection. This is excellent news for the rule of law and, once the current turbulence is over, for Brazilian democracy.

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