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Many Brazilian Voters Look Past Lula da Silva’s Graft Conviction


SÃO PAULO—If Luiz Inácio

Lula da Silva

wins Brazil’s election this weekend, it would mark a major political comeback for the ex-president, who was convicted five years ago on money-laundering and corruption charges, signaling that voters are focused mainly on economic issues.

Sunday’s vote pits Mr. da Silva, a longtime standard-bearer for the Brazilian left whose criminal convictions were later annulled, against conservative President

Jair Bolsonaro

in a campaign that has focused on rising unemployment, mounting inflation and pandemic policies. Recent opinion polls show Mr. da Silva, who has promised to boost spending on the poor, ahead by about 5 percentage points.


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In the first round he got 48.4%. Bolsonaro, who has been criticized by opponents for his Covid-19 response, got 43.2%. Covid-19 killed about 688,000 people in Brazil.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pictured in 2017, was sentenced to jail for corruption and money laundering that year but was released two years later.


Denis Ferreira/Associated Press

About 44% of Brazilians believe it was correct to convict Mr. da Silva of corruption, according to a poll last month by Genial/Quaest. About a quarter of respondents who said they would vote for Mr. da Silva also said they thought he was correctly convicted, were unsure or didn’t respond. Mr. da Silva has always asserted his innocence related to the charges, saying he was the victim of a political witch hunt. 

“Car Wash went beyond the bounds of an investigation and entered the realm of politics,” Mr. da Silva said in a televised interview in August, referring to the sprawling probe under which he was convicted. “Their target was Lula,” he said of the prosecutors.

Residents in Brazil’s poor favela communities ranked fighting corruption as only their sixth priority, after job creation, improving health services, reducing inflation, combating poverty, and education, according to a recent poll by G-10 Favelas, a nonprofit organization. While Brazil’s economic situation has improved somewhat this year, unemployment rose to close to 15% in the middle of last year, while inflation accelerated to more than 10% a few months later.

The scale of corruption in Brazil is difficult to quantify, but in 2015, the federal prosecutors’ office estimated about 3% of Brazil’s gross domestic product is diverted every year into the pockets of corrupt officials. 

President Jair Bolsonaro, speaking to journalists this month, has been criticized by opponents for his Covid-19 response in a country where 688,000 people died from the pandemic.


Aloisio Mauricio/Zuma Press

Mr. da Silva was convicted of corruption and money laundering in 2017 and 2019 as a result of the wide-ranging Car Wash graft investigation that started in 2014.  He was sentenced to 8 years and 10 months, but released from jail in November 2019 after 19 months in jail following a ruling from the Supreme Court that allowed him to appeal in freedom. The court later annulled his two convictions, saying the cases were tried in the wrong jurisdiction. The cases were moved to a new jurisdiction and not retried before the statute of limitations expired. 

The prospect of a victory for Mr. da Silva is dismaying to anticorruption campaigners, they say.

Some say it seems the end of an era of widespread prosecutions under the Car Wash probe that charged 981 people and was held up as a model of anticorruption efforts in the developing world.

Mr. da Silva’s possible re-election this weekend would set a dangerous precedent, said Bruno Garschagen, a political scientist and author.

Viviane Rocha, a student from São Paulo, isn’t bothered by the past conviction, saying her aversion to his opponent spoke more loudly.  “Bolsonaro is just the worst,” she said, citing his handling of the pandemic and his derogatory comments about women and gay people. “He has no empathy for the Brazilian people.”

Mr. Bolsonaro has defended his handling of the pandemic, but later apologized for some of his most outspoken comments. When questioned by reporters about the country’s spiraling death count in 2020, he said: “I’m not a gravedigger,” a comment he later publicly said was “out of line.” 

Jair Bolsonaro, who swept to victory in 2018 on an anticorruption platform, has ‘Corruption Denialism’ written on his hand during a journalist interview.


nelson almeida/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Almost 40% of Brazilians in a Datafolha survey at the end of July said they fear the ex-army captain could attempt to stage a military uprising to stay in power if he loses the vote. Some 37% of Brazilians in a PoderData poll earlier this year said they also believe Mr. Bolsonaro carries the most blame for the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil.

Following the vast Car Wash investigation, which involved the U.S. Justice Department and FBI, some prosecutors and legal analysts say efforts to tackle corruption in Brazil have slowed in recent years. Mr. Bolsonaro, who was swept to victory in 2018 on the promise to combat corruption in the wake of the Car Wash revelations, said in 2020 he was “putting an end” to the Car Wash operation because it was no longer necessary. “There is no more corruption in the government,” he said. 

In the latest Corruption Perceptions Index, reported by nonprofit watchdog group Transparency International in 2021, Brazil scored 38 points out of 100. That is a lower ranking than those of other big South American countries, such as Colombia and Chile, and is lower than Brazil’s own rating of 43 points a decade ago.

“Brazil went from being a country that was recognized as a reference among developing nations in the fight against corruption to a critical case of a country suffering setbacks,” said Bruno Brandão, executive director in Brazil of Transparency International. 

The country’s sprawling party system, one of the most fragmented in the world with 24 political parties in Congress, lends itself to corruption because it leads to political horse-trading as smaller parties with little ideological purpose could promise support in return for perks, said Rafael Alcadipani, a researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Changing it would require congressional approval from the very people the system benefits, he said.

With 33 million Brazilians now unable to afford to buy enough food to eat, compared with about 19 million people in the same situation at the end of 2020, according to the research group Penssan, many voters say they have more pressing matters on their minds.    

Many Brazilians of modest means fondly recall the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who held a campaign rally in São Paulo this month.


Andre Penner/Associated Press

 “We haven’t eaten meat at home for weeks, maybe months—everything is just so expensive,” said Antonio dos Santos, a road sweeper and father of seven, who plans to vote for Mr. da Silva. He said he remembers how life was easier under Mr. da Silva’s previous presidency, which coincided with the country’s windfall from the 2000s commodity boom.

 Mr. Bolsonaro has also seen his government, as well as his family, hit by graft allegations.

Federal police made arrests this month in an investigation into what is being dubbed the “secret budget”—a mechanism created by Congress in 2019 that allows its members to direct federal funding toward projects in their home states with little oversight. The measure is legal, but police said they suspect it was being used in some cases to illegally siphon off funds for projects that didn’t exist. Political rivals have accused Mr. Bolsonaro of using the mechanism to buy legislative support in Congress.  Mr. Bolsonaro has denied those accusations, saying he is against the mechanism and wants to dismantle it if re-elected. 

In 2020, prosecutors filed graft charges against Mr. Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flávio, over allegations that at the time he was a state deputy in Rio de Janeiro he took part in a scheme to hire government workers who agreed to kick back part of their salary.  He has denied wrongdoing. 

Eduardo Gomes, a tire repairman from the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, has fond memories of Mr. da Silva’s first term in office in the 2000s, when Mr. Gomes managed to build his own house and his mother’s home got connected to the power grid.

He said he didn’t care if Mr. da Silva was corrupt, adding that he’d rather vote for him than for Mr. Bolsonaro, who he blames for Brazil’s high Covid-19 death toll. 

“He was Brazil’s best president—if he ran 10 times, I’d vote for him 10 times,” Mr. Gomes said.

Write to Samantha Pearson at [email protected] and Luciana Magalhaes at [email protected]

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