RIO DE JANEIRO — In 2019, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva spent 23 hours a day in an isolated cell with a treadmill at a federal penitentiary.
The former president of Brazil was sentenced to 22 years on corruption charges, a sentence that seemed to end the historic career of the man who was once the lion of the Latin American left.
Now released from prison, Mr. da Silva is poised to become president of Brazil once again, an incredible political resurrection that at one point seemed unthinkable.
On Sunday, Brazilians will vote for their next leader, with the majority choosing between President Jair Bolsonaro, 67, the right-wing nationalist incumbent, and Mr. da Silva, 76, a leftist enthusiast known simply as “Lula.” , whose corruption convictions were overturned last year after Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the judge in their cases was biased.
For more than a year, polls have shown da Silva with a commanding lead. Now, a spike in his numbers suggests he could win on Sunday with more than 50 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff with Bolsonaro.
A victory would complete a remarkable journey for Mr. da Silva, whom former President Barack Obama once called “the most popular politician on Earth.” When he left office in 2011 after two terms, da Silva’s approval rating exceeded 80 percent. But then he became the centerpiece of a sprawling government bribery investigation that led to nearly 300 arrests, landing him in prison and seemingly destined for obscurity.
Today, the former union leader is back in the spotlight, this time ready to take back the wheel of the largest nation in Latin America, with 217 million inhabitants, with a mandate to undo the legacy of Bolsonaro.
“How did they try to destroy Lula? I spent 580 days in jail because they didn’t want me to run,” da Silva told a crowd of supporters last week, his famously deep voice made even hoarser with age and a grueling campaign. “And there I stayed calm, preparing myself as Mandela prepared himself for 27 years.”
On the campaign trail, da Silva has begun comparing himself to Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., political prisoners who expanded their movements after being released. “I am convinced that the same will happen here in Brazil”, he said at a separate rally this month.
Da Silva’s return to the office of president would cement his status as the most influential figure in modern Brazilian democracy. A former metalworker with a fifth-grade education and the son of illiterate farmworkers, he has been a political force for decades, leading a transformative shift in Brazilian politics away from conservative principles and toward leftist ideals and interests. of the working class.
The left-wing Workers’ Party that he co-founded in 1980 has won four of the eight presidential elections since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1988, while finishing second in the rest.
As president from 2003 to 2010, Mr. da Silva’s administration helped lift 20 million Brazilians out of poverty, revitalized the country’s oil industry and elevated Brazil on the world stage, including hosting the World Cup and Summer Olympics.
But he also allowed a vast bribery scheme to fester throughout the government, with many of his Workers’ Party allies convicted of taking bribes. While the courts threw out da Silva’s two convictions of accepting condominium and renovations from construction companies bidding for government contracts, they did not affirm his innocence.
Mr. da Silva has long maintained that the charges were false.
If da Silva wins the presidency, it will be thanks in part to an old-school campaign. He has toured the vast country holding face-to-face rallies. He has played it safe, skipping a debate last Saturday, offering few details on his proposals and turning down most interview requests, including with The New York Times.
And he has built a broad coalition, from communists to businessmen, selecting a center-right former governor as his running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, who had been his opponent in the 2006 presidential election.
Mr da Silva has also benefited from a showdown with a deeply unpopular incumbent. Polls show roughly half of Brazilians say they would never support Bolsonaro, who has upset many voters with a torrent of false statements, destructive environmental policies, an adoption of unproven drugs over Covid-19 vaccines, and harsh attacks against political rivals and journalists. , judges and health professionals.
On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro has called da Silva a thief and a communist, while da Silva describes the president as authoritarian and inhumane.
If elected, Mr. da Silva would be the most significant example yet of Latin America’s recent shift to the left. Since 2018, leftists have mounted an anti-incumbent incumbent wave in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, and Peru.
In general, Mr. da Silva’s campaign has been built around the promise he has been making for decades: he will improve the lives of Brazil’s poor. The pandemic hit Brazil’s economy, with inflation reaching double digits and the number of hungry people doubling to 33 million. He promised to expand the safety net, raise the minimum wage, reduce inflation, feed and house more people, and create jobs through major new infrastructure projects.
“He was the anti-poverty president and that is the legacy he wants to keep if he wins,” said Celso Rocha de Barros, a sociologist who wrote a book about the Workers’ Party.
However, like most successful politicians, da Silva’s speeches tend to be short on details and long on promises. He often builds his rhetoric around a clash between “them”, the elites, and “us”, the people. He carries his working-class credentials in his left hand; he lost his little finger at age 19 in an auto parts factory. And he carries his message with his Everyman image, complete with many references to beer, cachaça and picanha, Brazil’s most famous cut of meat.
“They think that the poor have no rights,” he told a crowd of supporters in one of São Paulo’s poorest neighborhoods last week. But he would fight for his rights, he said. “The right to barbecue as a family on the weekend, to buy a little picanha, that piece of picanha with the fat soaked in flour, and a glass of cold beer,” he yelled to cheers.
“He is the candidate of the people, of the poor,” Vivian Casentino, 44, a cook dressed in Workers’ Party red, said at a rally this week in Rio de Janeiro. He is like us. He is a fighter.”
In his first term as president, da Silva used the commodity boom to pay for the expansion of his government. This time, Brazil’s economy is in worse shape and he is proposing higher taxes on the rich to finance more benefits for the poor. Some voters are uneasy with his plans after the economic policies of his handpicked successor helped push Brazil into a recession.
Although his political style has not changed in his sixth presidential campaign, he has tried to modernize his image. She has included more references to women, blacks, indigenous groups and the environment in her speeches and proposals, even promising to advocate for “organic salads.”
“Globo spent five years calling me a thief,” he said, referring to Brazil’s largest television network. He said he wished the channel’s main anchor would open the news one night asking for forgiveness. “Apologies are difficult,” he added.
Mr. da Silva has never fully acknowledged the role of his Workers’ Party in the government corruption scheme that persisted for much of the 13 years he was in power. The investigation, called Operation Carwash, revealed how companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to government officials in exchange for government contracts.
Mr. da Silva says he was framed by political enemies to eliminate the Workers’ Party from Brazilian politics. He also accused the US government of helping push the investigation.
The Carwash investigation eventually became mired in its own scandal, as it became clear that it had been used as a political tool. Prosecutors focused on the crimes of the Workers’ Party over other parties, and investigators leaked da Silva’s taped conversations. Sergio Moro, the federal judge in charge of the case, was later revealed to be in collusion with prosecutors, while also serving as the sole arbiter in many of the trials.
In 2019, Mr. da Silva was released after the Supreme Court ruled that he could be free pending appeals. Then last year, the Supreme Court threw out his convictions, ruling that they were tried in the wrong court and that Mr. Moro was biased.
Da Silva is carried by a cult of personality, built up over four decades in the public eye, and is far more popular than the political party he built.
Creomar de Souza, a Brazilian political analyst, said that immature democracies can often revolve around a single personality rather than a movement or set of ideas. “Some young democracies are struggling to step up,” he said. “An individual becomes a crucial part of the game.”
At a da Silva rally in Rio this week, Vinicius Rodrigues, 28, a history student, was handing out flyers for a communist party. “We support Lula specifically,” he said, but not the Workers’ Party.
Nearby, Luiz Claudio Costa, 55, sold headbands that said “I’m with Lula” for 50 cents. He had always voted for da Silva, but in 2018 he chose Bolsonaro. “I was wrong,” he said. “We need Lula back.”