SAO MIGUEL DO OESTE, Brazil — With a likely arrest in the coming weeks, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva campaigned Sunday to return to power with promises to unite a divided Brazil and defeat those who he alleges have cooked up false accusations to keep him off the ballot.
Da Silva’s campaign “caravan” through southern Brazil has drawn admirers but has also been met with protests in recent days, and his supporters and detractors have occasionally tussled. At a rally Sunday night in Sao Miguel do Oeste, someone threw eggs toward the stage while da Silva and others spoke, prompting his security detail to open umbrellas to create a shield.
“I am ready to come back and to rebuild this country without hate, without suffering because when we have hate, we don’t sleep well,” he told supporters earlier in the day in the town of Nova Erechim after visiting a family farm. “Hate gives you heartburn.”
The tour is occurring in the shadow of a court ruling scheduled for Monday, when judges could order that he begin serving his sentence on a corruption conviction. Even if they do, da Silva will remain free at least until early April because he has a habeas corpus petition pending at the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil’s top court.
But it seems all but certain that da Silva’s days as a free man are numbered and that he will be jailed in the coming weeks. What comes next for him and for Brazil is less clear: Da Silva is leading polls for October’s presidential election, but he is likely to be barred from running because of the corruption conviction. His Workers’ Party has so far insisted that da Silva is their candidate, publicly shunning the idea of a Plan B.
Da Silva has denied the charges and says that they and a slew of other pending accusations amount to political persecution meant to keep him from regaining the presidency. The powerful symbolism of the once-beloved da Silva behind bars could further that message and rally the party faithful — but it’s not clear who, if anyone, can take da Silva’s place as the party’s candidate. A January Datafolha poll indicated that da Silva would lead a crowded field with between 34 and 37 percent of votes in the first round. In scenarios that do not include da Silva, other Workers’ Party politicians have polled in the low single digits. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
That leaves the race for the presidency in Latin America’s largest country wide open at a moment of extensive dissatisfaction. Unemployment is high as Brazil begins to recover from a punishing recession, and the sprawling Car Wash investigation has revealed corruption in the halls of power, turning many against the traditional elite.
Protesters left burning tires along da Silva’s route Sunday, and a couple of hundred detractors met his entourage as it entered Sao Miguel do Oeste. Some threw eggs at the vehicles in the caravan, while others chanted: “Lula, thief! Your place is in prison!”
Earlier in the weekend, riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to separate supporters and opponents who began to scuffle.
Da Silva, who is universally known as Lula in Brazil, left office in 2010 with sky-high approval ratings. But he has become a divisive figure in recent years. While he is a hero to many for the anti-poverty programs he implemented in office and his own rags-to-riches story, he is also seen as a symbol of the massive corruption that allegedly took place when his Workers’ Party was in power.
Prosecutors have claimed that the Brazilian government was essentially run as a cartel during that time, with officials doling out state contracts, favors or plush political appointments in exchange for bribes and campaign donations. They have said that the system continued after power was handed to another party.
Da Silva was convicted last year of trading favors with construction company OAS in return for the promise of a beachfront apartment. The conviction was upheld by a group of federal magistrates in January and they increased his sentence to 12 years and one month in prison.
The appellate judges are expected to give final clarification on the ruling Monday, and they could issue a warrant for da Silva’s arrest at the same time. His freedom would then depend on the Supreme Federal Tribunal, which is scheduled to rule on his habeas corpus petition on April 4.
He would still be able to continue to appeal his conviction, even while in jail. But Brazilian law says that he should be barred from seeking office in October.
Associated Press video journalist Mario Lobao reported this story in Sao Miduel do Oeste and AP writer Sarah DiLorenzo reported from Sao Paulo. AP journalists Eraldo Peres and Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report.