WHEN Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva finished his stint as Brazil’s president in 2011, his approval rating was 83%. His social programmes and a commodity boom helped lift 30m people out of poverty. He hopes to run for president once again in an election this October, and leads the polls by a healthy margin. Only one obstacle seems to separate him from a third term: he is serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. He spends his days listening to samba and watching television in his cell.
Until this month, political observers mostly dismissed Lula’s chances of making a comeback. Formally, he has until August 15th to register to stand, which would trigger a review of his eligibility by the electoral tribunal. However, Brazil’s ficha limpa (“clean record”) law bars candidates whose convictions have been upheld by an appeals court, as Lula’s was in January. His only hope is for the supreme court to overturn the verdict. Some polling firms have already dropped him from their questionnaires, leaving the far-right Jair Bolsonaro as the front-runner. On July 8th, however, a judge decreed that Lula should be freed, plunging the campaign into turmoil.
The saga started when three congressmen from Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) filed a habeas-corpus petition demanding his release. Although scores of similar requests had already been filed, the lawmakers timed theirs to fall into the hands of Rogério Favreto, an appeals judge on call over the weekend. Mr Favreto had previously been a member of the PT and worked for Lula’s government. He instructed police to let Lula go, saying that another judge had violated Lula’s rights by banning him from giving interviews while behind bars.
Mr Favreto’s decision was not implemented. In response to his directive, two off-duty judges issued orders negating it. A third, the president of Mr Favreto’s tribunal, settled the score, ordering that Lula remain locked up. Nonetheless, the contradictory rulings put Lula back at the centre of the campaign. Google searches for his name spiked 50-fold on July 8th. That increases the risk that Brazilians will regard the election as illegitimate if Lula cannot run. The chaos in the courts also reinforces concerns that the judiciary is becoming just another forum for partisan politics.
Many Brazilians cheered when Lula was first convicted last year. Despite his popularity, the verdict was widely seen as a victory over impunity after decades when the powerful were rarely held to account. Lula is being held in the same police building where Sérgio Moro, one of the magistrates who intervened to keep him in jail, launched the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation in 2014, unveiling a huge corruption scheme involving politicians and businessmen of all political stripes.
Nonetheless, PT loyalists counter that the judiciary is treating Lula unfairly. He was convicted of accepting a seaside flat worth 2.2m reais ($690,000) from a construction firm and, in return, of encouraging the state oil company to award contracts to that business. Lula swears he is innocent, and that he never owned the flat. In a country where only the supreme court, backlogged with 87,000 cases a year, can hear criminal cases against sitting office-holders—enabling many politicians accused of massive graft to walk free—Lula’s 12-year sentence looks harsh. “We believe the Car Wash operation is political persecution against Lula,” says Valeska Teixeira Zanin Martins, one of his lawyers.
Lula’s supporters also argue that his punishment has exceeded his sentence. In 2016 the supreme court ruled that people convicted of crimes could be jailed after losing an appeal, but did not state whether they retain political rights such as voting and running for office. Another part of the constitution protects these rights, though whether they include giving interviews is up for debate. The judge overseeing Lula’s sentence prohibited interviews, citing the terms of Lula’s imprisonment and his probable ineligibility for office. Mr Favreto, in contrast, tried to free Lula on the grounds that his incarceration itself violated his political rights as a potential candidate.
Even if Lula is not on the ballot, the PT is counting on these arguments to bolster its support. If enough voters believe Lula has been wronged, they may be more likely to plump for whomever he endorses. In a contest between the authoritarian Mr Bolsonaro and a PT candidate propped up by outrage over anti-corruption efforts, Brazil’s fragile democratic institutions would be the only certain loser.