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Lula’s release reignites Brazil’s opposition

“You have no idea the dimension of the significance of me being here with you,” Lula told jubilant supporters, thanking individual union leaders and members of his leftist Workers’ Party, known as PT. “They didn’t arrest a man. They tried to detain an idea. An idea doesn’t disappear.”

Lula was found guilty also on appeal and has been imprisoned since April 2018. His release will likely reinvigorate an opposition weakened by corruption scandals, the impeachment of his hand-picked successor in 2016, his imprisonment and, more recently, a clobbering in the 2018 general elections. But it’s not clear what political role he will seek now that he is free.

Ran an anti-Workers' Party campaign: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro .

Ran an anti-Workers’ Party campaign: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro .Credit:AP

While he is barred from office as his appeals run their course, the former leader of the Workers’ Party remains a popular figure on the left. Still, he could find himself back in jail if his appeals don’t go his way.

His release also could anger right-leaning Brazilians who had viewed his imprisonment as proof Brazil was finally serious about putting an end to impunity. He was jailed as part of a giant investigation known as Car Wash which also jailed some 80 other politicians and company executives. Lula’s guilty verdict drove the two sides of Brazil’s already-polarised society even further apart.

In addition to promising to root out corruption and curb violence, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ran a strong campaign on anti-Workers Party sentiment. He won the election’s second round with 55 per cent of the vote, ahead of Lula’s successor Fernando Haddad with 44 per cent, and was sworn in on January 1.¬†

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Lula, who governed from 2003 to 2010 had been favoured to win the 2018 presidential election, but his conviction eventually prohibited him from running.

The former president has said that when free, he would travel around the country rallying opposition. Political analysts say he might not immediately enter into a direct confrontation with Bolsonaro, seeking instead to influence the next presidential election in 2022.

“The thing that makes Lula most dangerous to Bolsonaro is that Lula understands the long game,” said James Bosworth, founder of Hxagon, a political risk analysis firm, stressing that the politician had run four times before being first elected in 2003.

“Lula is an old school union and political organisers who is going to take his time placing PT and other allies into positions to take advantage of Bolsonaro’s weaknesses in the coming years,” he said.

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The former union leader is widely referred to as a “political animal”. He presided over a period of rapid growth fuelled by a commodities boom that expanded the country’s middle class. His huge Bolsa Familia welfare program helped lift millions from poverty, and he left office with an approval rating above 80 per cent. His impassioned oratory can just as easily elicit laughter or tears from those among his supporters.

For Claudio Couto, a professor in political science at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Sao Paulo, Lula’s release will have profound consequences on both sides of Brazil’s political spectrum.

On the one hand, it will serve Bolsonaro’s anti-PT and anti-Lula rhetoric, Couto said. “On the other hand, it ends the PT’s ‘Free Lula’ rhetoric, and forces the party to take on another agenda.”

Left-leaning supporters hailed the release of their standard-bearer, but want more and are now advocating for his name to be cleared.

While he is out of jail, the former leader remains entangled in several court cases.

Aside from the beachfront apartment, he was also sentenced by a lower court judge in a case centered around ownership of a farmhouse in Atibaia, outside Sao Paulo. If he loses his appeals in either conviction, he could find himself imprisoned once again.

The former metal worker has denied any wrongdoing and accuses Car Wash prosecutors and then- judge Sergio Moro, now Justice Minister, of political persecution.

In a separate Supreme Court debate, justices will decide whether Moro was biased when he delivered his rulings. Protests supporting Moro and his anti-corruption crusade have been scheduled this weekend in major Brazilian cities.

Sitting beside his girlfriend in the backseat of a car driving him away from the prison where he spent the last 19 months, Lula reassured his supporters in a brief Facebook live: “I’m going to work for the rest of my life to repay you, with gratitude, with love, with work.”

AP

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