Lula’s arrest leaves volatile Brazil stumbling

The imprisonment of ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has given already chaotic Brazil another push down an ever more unpredictable future.

His arrest on Saturday took place against a backdrop of impassioned speeches, crying supporters, demonstrations and tear gas fired by riot police. It was not the picture of a country at ease with itself.

“The climate of polarization and radicalization… worries us all,” warned Public Security Minister Raul Jungmann.

READ MORE: Brazil’s Lula spends first day of 12-year prison sentence

With six months to go before a presidential election, Lula’s imprisonment for corruption has created ever deeper divisions.

He is the frontrunner, according to polls, yet is hated just as much as he loved, known alternately as “warrior of the Brazilian people” and simply “bandit.” Some ask whether an election without such an outsized player can be considered fair.

“Brazil is going through a democratic crisis, a crisis that reveals that the political and judicial systems are exhausted and under huge tension,” said Christophe Ventura, at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in France.

Volatility 

Lula’s almost certain exit from the election has sent the other candidates scrambling.

His own Workers’ Party is in the lurch, since he is by far their most popular figure. He’ll keep on being a candidate, even from behind bars – and hoping to get out – but it’s clearly a risky strategy.

“The imprisonment of Lula symbolizes the end of an era,” said Andre Cesar at Hold consultants.

Ventura argues that Lula’s conviction for accepting a seaside apartment as a bribe from a huge construction company was not convincing enough to merit knocking the leftist out of the race.

“The country has been through some unstable and crazy times but this is unprecedented. Never in Brazil has a former president been imprisoned on such a controversial conviction,” he said.

The Supreme Court could change a law in a vote this week that would effectively win Lula’s release. If that happens it would signal “total uncertainty and volatility in Brazilian political life,” Ventura said.

Adding to the tension, the head of the army, General Eduardo Villas Boas, made a call last week that appeared to demand Lula’s imprisonment – a rare and, some say, disturbing intervention into politics by a top officer.

It comes at a time when the army is playing an ever higher profile role after President Michel Temer ordered the military to take over security in Rio de Janeiro, where police struggle to cope with violent crime.

Corruption war 

A big driver of instability in Brazil is a four-year war on corruption known as operation “Car Wash.”

The crusade has investigated or convicted scores of politicians, including Lula, and seen the filing of corruption charges against Temer, although for now he is protected by presidential immunity.

With 12.6% unemployment, “the combination of economic recession and quasi-pornographic exposure of corruption is explosive,” Folha de S.Paulo newspaper said.

It’s a mix that has seen a remarkable rise for Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing former army officer who praises the dictatorship of 1964-85 and whose platform is heavy on law-and-order.

Bolsonaro, who comes only second to Lula in polls, has also stirred up his base by capitalising on widespread dislike of Lula.

Even imprisoned, the leftist icon continues to raise warring emotions. For some he is a political prisoner, while others see him as a showman who knows how to manipulate his followers and Brazil’s institutions.

A recent campaign trip by Lula saw his buses attacked with eggs, stones and even gunshots.

An O Globo editorial blamed him: “with his rhetoric of hatred he creates the greater potential for attacks and violence.”

As Ventura said, now “anything can happen.”

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Pascale Trouillaud
Pascale Trouillaud
Journalist, director AFP-Brazil

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