Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returned to the political fray after the annulment of his corruption convictions, as he launched a blistering attack on Jair Bolsonaro over the incumbent leader’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy.
“[Bolsonaro] does not know what it is to be president . . . He does not take care of the economy, jobs, salaries, health, the environment, education,” said Lula da Silva, an iconic figure of the Brazilian left who was president between 2003 and 2010.
Lula da Silva also made clear his intention to return to politics but without committing to challenging Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential polls. “My mother taught me ‘always fight’,” said Lula da Silva, adding that he would travel around Brazil to try to understand the needs of the people.
The former president returned to centre stage this week when a Brazilian supreme court judge unexpectedly annulled his convictions for graft, restoring the political rights of the founder of the Workers’ party in time for the 2022 elections.
The decision by judge Edson Fachin can still be overruled by a plenary session of Brazil’s top court. The prospect, however, appeared not to weigh on the mind of Lula da Silva on Wednesday as he delivered a fiery speech that mixed populism, traditional leftwing principals and anti-Bolsonaro rhetoric.
“They call me radical because I want to create a more just world, a more humane world,” Lula da Silva said, criticising the free market economic agenda of the Bolsonaro administration, in particular plans to privatise state-owned companies.
“You never heard a word from my mouth about privatisations,” he said at the event at a metalworkers union outside Sao Paulo — a symbolic site where he was arrested in 2018.
The former union leader served 580 days in prison before being released in 2019 following a supreme court ruling that defendants could only be jailed after exhausting all of their multiple appeals.
Then on Monday his convictions were quashed completely, with the judge ruling that the court in the city of Curitiba that tried Lula da Silva did not have appropriate jurisdiction and that the case should be retried in Brasília.
Standing in front of a banner depicting himself being mobbed by supporters, Lula da Silva on Wednesday gave a display of the oratorical powers that took him from an industrial worker to the most powerful office in the country.
But he reserved his most potent words for the current president.
“Do not follow any imbecilic decisions by the president or the health ministry. Take a vaccine,” he urged Brazilians. “You need to continue to use masks and alcohol gel.”
The stance contrasts with that of Bolsonaro, who has played down the seriousness of the virus, pledged not to take a vaccine after recovering from the illness and questioned the use of face masks.
Both men maintain a bloc of dedicated supporters on their respective sides of the political spectrum. A poll conducted this month by the Ipec research institute found that 50 per cent of those interviewed would vote for Lula da Silva in the next presidential election, compared with 38 per cent for Bolsonaro.
Lula da Silva on Wednesday did find a rare point of agreement with Bolsonaro: the discontent over rising fuel prices that led the president to oust the head of state-controlled oil producer Petrobras.
“How can gasoline increase so much? It’s not possible to allow the fuel price to have to follow the international price if we are not oil importers. If we produce the raw material here, we can refine it here.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice in São Paulo