Brazil can be rescued after being turned into a Covid-stricken global outcast by its “psychopath” president Jair Bolsonaro, the politician best placed to defeat him in next year’s presidential election has insisted.
In an interview with the Guardian, Brazil’s former leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who is widely tipped to challenge Bolsonaro for the presidency after regaining his political rights – stopped short of explicitly confirming he would run. But Lula, who rose from rural poverty to become Brazil’s first working-class president, left no doubt he was plotting an extraordinary finale to one of the world’s most enduring and dramatic political careers.
“I ran eight kilometres before this interview … and I usually run 9km a day, Monday to Friday, because walking around Brazil is going to be very tough, very tiring and I need to get my legs ready to fix this country’s problems,” said Lula, a former shoeshine boy and union leader who was president from 2003 until 2011.
“I’ll be 77 by [next year’s election]. I thought that was old. But then I saw Biden win the elections at 78 and said, ‘Well, I’m a boy compared to Biden so perhaps I’ll be alright.’”
Lula said Brazil’s still-raging Covid outbreak and the socioeconomic crisis it had spawned meant it was too early to launch what would be his sixth presidential campaign since 1989. But the Workers’ party (PT) veteran claimed he had the experience and desire to lead Brazil’s “recovery” after the damage inflicted by Bolsonaro’s incompetence, and would do so, if his party and voters wished.
“I don’t need to make pledges. I’ve already made things happen in this country,” said Lula, 75.
“Once our party has its candidate and we’re in campaign mode, I want to travel around Brazil, to visit every state, to hold debates, to talk to the people, to visit the favelas, to the recyclers, to LGBT people … I want to talk to Brazilian society so I can tell them: ‘It is possible for us to build a new country … It’s possible to make this country happy again.”
The seeds for Lula’s comeback were sown in March when a supreme court judge quashed the corruption conviction that forced him from the 2018 election won by Bolsonaro. Soon after the court ruled that Sergio Moro, the rightwing judge who jailed Lula before joining Bolsonaro’s cabinet, had treated the former president unfairly.
Since then Lula has positioned himself as a reliable, moderate and upbeat alternative to Bolsonaro’s “moronic” extremism and busied himself meeting powerbrokers whose support will be key if he is to reclaim the presidency next October.
Polls suggest the leftist is well placed to defeat Bolsonaro, who critics accuse of devastating Brazil’s environment and economy and catastrophically mishandling Covid, a disease he has called a “little flu”. Brazil’s top pollster, Datafolha, recently forecast Lula would beat Bolsonaro in a second round run-off by a margin of more than 20%.
“Lula is the clear favourite,” said Christian Lynch, a Rio-based political scientist who thought most voters were desperate to turn the page on Bolsonaro’s “hellish” reign.
Lynch said many powerful members of the political and economic elite also favoured working with a pragmatic deal-maker like Lula rather than the “intransigent sectarian” now in power. That meant a cinematic resurrection was on the cards for Lula, a political colossus who has been on the frontline of Brazilian politics since the early 1980s. “He’s the phoenix arising from the ashes. It’s something epic,” Lynch said.
Surveys suggesting Lula’s ascendancy appear to have spooked Bolsonaro, 66, whose ratings have tumbled to record lows as a congressional inquiry investigates his Covid response. The former paratrooper has tried to rally hardcore supporters in recent weeks, organising pro-government rallies and labeling Lula a “nine-fingered crook” and the “son of Satan”.
Lula laughed off those insults as the words of a jittery rival. “For the last two or three years Bolsonaro hardly uttered my name because he thought I was out of the game – and now suddenly he realizes I’m holding all the best cards and if this was poker he would already have lost,” the former president said with a grin.
Lula said he was too old to engage in mudslinging with his adversary: “You’re not dealing with a normal human being. You’re dealing with a psychopath, who lacks the slightest ability to govern.”
But the leftist icon was scathing about Bolsonaro’s “genocidal” stewardship of a Covid epidemic that has killed nearly 450,000 Brazilians, including Lula’s mother-in-law. “He could have avoided half of these deaths,” Lula claimed, predicting Bolsonaro would eventually be held to account for his anti-scientific sabotage of containment measures such as physical distancing and mask wearing. If that reckoning did not come through impeachment or the congressional inquiry, “I’ve no doubt whatsoever that he won’t escape being judged by the Brazilian people in 2022,” Lula said.
“Mark my words … it won’t be Lula who defeats Bolsonaro. It won’t be any candidate who defeats Bolsonaro. It will be the Brazilian people who free themselves of Bolsonaro.”
Lula, an energetic international statesman who promoted Brazil as a progressive champion of the developing world and leader on environmental and climate issues, also savaged Bolsonaro’s foreign policy record. After taking office in January 2019 Bolsonaro embraced Donald Trump and alienated an all-star cast of world leaders including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and Joe Biden, whose victory Bolsonaro took 38 days to recognize.
“Today, Brazil is a global pariah. There’s no country with any credibility that likes Brazil. There’s no country that wants to welcome the Brazilian president and no president who wants to come here,” complained Lula, who recently met the British, German and South African envoys in an effort to rebuild bridges with the world.
“Brazil is a country that can get on well with everyone,” he said. “I even told the British ambassador that Boris Johnson can get ready, because if I go to the United Kingdom he’ll have to have a bike race with me around London – and I’ll show him what a competent cyclist I am,” he joked, claiming he had also enjoyed “wonderful relationships” with the Labour leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.