Less than a day after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was released from prison last week, the former Brazilian leader gathered supporters for a fiery stump speech in which he vowed to save the country from “ultra-right” president Jair Bolsonaro.
It was a message rapturously received by the thousands of assembled devotees. But fears are growing that the re-emergence of one of the icons of Latin America’s left after 580 days in jail is more likely to sow discord than unite a bitterly divided nation.
Rather than saving Brazil, Lula — as he is widely known — is poised to polarise it further by preventing the emergence of new leftwing or centrist figures to challenge Mr Bolsonaro and reigniting fears on the right of a return to Workers’ party rule, say political observers.
The situation is further complicated by the nature of his release from prison — it followed a stunning Supreme Court ruling that allows inmates with appeals pending to be freed. The move has been criticised as a blow to governance and accountability in a country plagued by corruption.
“We are going back to business as usual,” said Eduardo Mello, a professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “[The court decision] is terrible news for our long-term growth and the development of democracy in Brazil.”
The country’s president during the heady days of the commodities boom from 2003 to 2010, Lula da Silva was last year sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, a term subsequently reduced to nine years.
But it was a trial fraught with judicial and political mis-steps. Leaked recordings released earlier this year appeared to show prosecutors co-operating with Sergio Moro, the presiding judge, who went on to become justice minister in Mr Bolsonaro’s cabinet.
The problems with the case, combined with his longstanding popularity, fuelled an almost fanatical Lula Livre — Free Lula — movement, which this weekend erupted into celebration after his release.
“It is a thrill because it is a return of democracy. Today represents the hope that better days will come,” said Selma Regina Pereira, one of thousands who attended the São Paulo rally clad in the red of Lula da Silva’s Workers’ party.
But the 74-year-old’s swift return to the fray is likely have deep ramifications as he reclaims leadership of the left.
“Since prison, Lula has become increasingly leftwing and increasingly populist. He is a radical Lula now. The result of his release will be more polarisation,” said Prof Mello.
His release could also benefit Mr Bolsonaro, say analysts, presenting the Brazilian president with a clear enemy who he can use to galvanise and unite his conservative base.
“Bolsonaro needs controversy and with Lula in jail he neglected the opposition and consistently turned against his own entourage, cabinet and party for conflict. Now, he will have a clear target,” said Mario Marconini, managing director at the consultancy Teneo.
The main political victims are likely to be centrist figures, who will increasingly find their political space constrained.
“The release of Lula from jail only enhances a situation that was present in the 2018 elections, when the centre was incapable of producing a viable alternative to Bolsonaro and [leftwing candidate Fernando] Haddad,” Mr Marconini said.
Tensions are also likely to be exacerbated by the ruling that allowed the former president to leave jail. The Supreme Court said its decision to allow those convicted to remain free until they have exhausted the appeals process was made to uphold the letter of Brazil’s constitution.
“It is the right understanding of the constitution . . . It’s a delicate balance between the rule of law and fighting corruption,” said Monica Herz, a senior fellow at the Brazilian Centre for International Relations.
But for some Brazilians, the ruling smacked of a return to the days when the wealthy could avoid jail through seemingly endless appeals, legal delays and backroom deals.
For many the court ruling also symbolised the death knellof the Lava Jato — Car Wash — corruption probe, which over the past five years has put scores of white-collar criminals, including politicians and business leaders, behind bars. Many will now be released.
“This Supreme Court ruling frustrates all Brazilians who are against corruption. Just as Lula has already been released from prison, another 5,000 prisoners will be able to appeal,” said Alex Manente, a lawmaker with the centristCidadania party.
“Lula’s release puts Brazil on a collision with civil unrest,” said Steve Bannon, the former adviser to US president Donald Trump, who is close to the Bolsonaro family.
Both houses of Brazil’s Congress have tabled bills to restore the previous system in which convicts were incarcerated following the failure of their first appeal. But the move is unlikely to succeed as many in Congress stand to benefit from the court decision, Mr Marconini said.
Mr Bolsonaro himself is facing claims that some relatives are engaged in corruption and linked to violent militias in Rio de Janeiro — allegations they deny.
In addition, popular support for cracking down on corruption is waning, with few political leaders left to carry the torch, say analysts.
“The establishment is pushing back [against the corruption crackdown] and there is no one to call people to protest in their millions,” Prof Mello said. “This is not good and could get worse.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice in São Paulo
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