Brazil’s beloved ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — once dubbed “the most popular politician on Earth” by Barack Obama — was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison Wednesday on corruption and money laundering charges, throwing a wrench in his 2018 bid for Brazil’s presidency.
In the first of his five corruption trials, Lula, who served as president from 2003 to 2011, was found guilty of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from an engineering firm that paid for the former president’s refurbished apartment in exchange for lucrative contracts with state-owned oil giant Petrobras. His trial is among the hundreds of graft cases that comprise the enormous corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash that has engulfed the highest echelons of Brazilian politics for the better part of three years. Current President Michel Temer and former house speaker Eduardo Cunha are also among the hundreds of political and business elites embroiled in the controversy.
But being swarmed by corruption allegations for more than a year hasn’t affected Lula’s popularity. Despite his many scandals, he remains one of Brazil’s most popular politicians and is among the favorites to win the presidency in 2018.
A poll published by Brazilian polling company Datafolha on June 26 showed that regardless of who Lula was put up against, he’d receive about 30 percent of the first-round vote — a healthy lead over his opponents. Another poll commissioned by pollster MDA showed that Lula would crush Temer in a head-to-head, winning 42.9 percent of the vote to Temer’s 19 percent. (Temer has been a historically unpopular president from the start, with his approval rating sinking to a mere 9 percent in April.)
Lula is credited with reviving Brazil’s economy during his presidency and creating popular social welfare programs like the “Bolsa Familia” cash-grant program for families and aid to farmers. Such programs lifted many of the country’s marginalized populations out of poverty and earned Lula an enduring and loyal base, said Dr. Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“He is still very popular because there is still a class and race divide in Brazil,” Roett said. “There’s a sense that if Lula comes back, magically he’ll be able to put back into place the programs.”
Roett said that if Lula’s appeal of his conviction is denied and he is barred from seeking office, public protests and demonstrations will likely ensue, plunging Brazil deeper into its political and economic spiral.