Brazil’s leftist Workers’ Party nominated its charismatic founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for the upcoming presidential contest on Saturday despite him being imprisoned for corruption.
In a message from Lula read to the party convention in São Paulo, he said, “Brazil needs to restore its democracy.” Although serving a 12-year sentence for corruption, Lula, 72, remains by far the frontrunner in opinion polls.
Three big party conventions were held on Saturday, two months before the first round of voting on October 7 in Latin America’s dominant economy.
In Brasília, center-left environmental campaigner Marina Silva was crowned by her Rede party. Also in the capital, former São Paulo governor and establishment heavyweight Geraldo Alckmin secured the nod from the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party, or PSDB.
“Go Brazil, Geraldo for president!” about 1,000 supporters chanted before Alckmin, 65, was nominated in an almost unanimous vote.
But while both Silva and Alckmin are serious contenders in a likely match-up against controversial right-winger Jair Bolsonaro, it was Lula’s highly unusual convention in São Paulo that overshadowed proceedings.
Lula is in prison in the southern city of Curitiba, serving a 12-year sentence for corruption and likely to be barred from the ballot.
But his Workers’ Party issued a call to arms, casting Lula as a victim of a rigged case and vowing to get him back into office, following his largely popular two terms from 2003-2010.
In the São Paulo convention center, some 2,000 attendees donned Lula masks and chanted his name. Then, after fiery speeches from Lula’s senior allies, the party faithful heard the leader’s words – read out by an actor.
“They want to scrap the people’s right to choose the president,” the message said. “They want to create a democracy without the people. We have an enormous responsibility ahead.”
Supporters have one remarkable factor on their side: despite his imprisonment and the corruption scandal, Lula remains far ahead in the polls.
Surveys show him with near double the support of all other main candidates in a first round, crushing any runner-up in the second decisive round two weeks later.
Lula is waiting for final court judgment on whether he can run and it doesn’t look good: under current law anyone losing an appeal of a criminal conviction is not allowed on the ballot.
Lula is widely credited with lifting thousands, if not millions, of Brazilians out of poverty during his eight years in office, which ended in 2011. But he was also accused, and convicted, of enriching himself through a widespread corruption scandal.
So despite the leftist leader’s almost cult-like backing, there was close attention being paid to the Workers’ Party choice for vice president, a figure who could end up standing in for the imprisoned leader.
One high-profile possibility is former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad. A powerful politician, he has signed on to Lula’s legal team, giving him easy access to the prison, and he would be well placed to inherit Lula’s electorate.
But the party appears to be torn, with some fearful of any move that might suggest giving up on the main goal of somehow getting Lula back into the presidential palace. Despite expectations that the issue might be resolved at the convention, no announcement was made.
Alckmin has already named Senator Ana Amelia, who is expected to help him in the south of the country and eat into conservative support for Bolsonaro. And if Alckmin has gone for a female VP, Silva, 60, has struck a pact with a man, Eduardo Jorge, from Brazil’s Green Party.
Bolsonaro, who has positioned himself as a radical right-winger appealing to Brazilians’ fury over crime and corruption, chose retired general Hamilton Mourão to be his running mate. Names the candidate tried unsuccessfully to have as vice president included a former astronaut, a member of the royal family and a another general.
The problem facing all candidates is the level of voter disgust and apathy.
Two polls show that in some states up to 41% of voters are undecided or not participating in an election that doesn’t include Lula. If Lula was on the ballot, that number would drop but still account for about a quarter of voters.