(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When he walked out of jail in Curitiba in southern Brazil after 580 days, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was not an entirely free man. He is merely the highest-profile beneficiary of the Nov. 7 Supreme Court decision to allow convicted criminals to remain at liberty until they exhaust all possible appeals.
Yet for loyalists of the practically beatified political leader, apparition is absolution. “Lula Livre!” — Lula in liberty — they cheered as he emerged at the jailhouse door. Never mind that he is still fighting a 10-year graft sentence from a 2017 case as well as at least half a dozen more charges from other pending cases in Brazil’s sprawling Carwash anti-graft investigation.
For the better part of four decades, the Workers’ Party (PT) icon — who served one term in congress, two as president and saw his successor elected twice — has been the left’s standard bearer, default orator and go-to candidate. Whether from the opposition stump or within governing palaces, Lula’s word has been law for companheiros and pain for political rivals. PT higher-ups commuted regularly to Curitiba to get marching orders.
Thus, in the 2018 campaign, President Jair Bolsonaro knew to style himself more as the anti-Lula candidate than as a beacon of the new right. To hear Lula’s homies tell it, Bolsonaro won that race not because of the serial scandals befouling the Workers’ Party but courtesy of a partisan judge who railroaded Lula in a judicial “coup d’etat.”
Whatever the merits of Lula’s expansive legal woes (the sentence from his first conviction runs 218 pages), his status as a public fixture and the left’s lone oracle curbs political diversity and stifles new leadership. At a time when Brazil’s governing circle has careened hard to the right, and the center has imploded, the lacuna on the left shortchanges democracy itself.
More troublingly, Lula himself, in a nod to Latin American populists, has helped pauperize the field by failing to allow, much less groom, a convincing replacement. His immediate successor Dilma Rousseff ran the economy into the ground and was impeached, while the PT brass never warmed to his pick to confront Bolsonaro, soft-left former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad.
It’s no help that, instead of renewal, Brazil’s political class went for fragmentation. The national congress is home to 28 parties, with no more than a handful of seats each and no discernible platform or political vision, but practiced at holding presidents to ransom for line items and favors in exchange for votes. The PT, under Lula, was meant to be different, a model of political discipline and progressivism that eschewed pork and patronage. Once in power, however, the ruling left party became the doyen of dirigisme, fiscal disarray and pay-to-play procurement, a toxic trifecta that led to one of the world’s biggest political corruption scandals and landed Lula behind bars.
Thanks to this week’s Supreme Court ruling, which scrapped a tougher one from just three years ago, Lula now may fight his legal battles from the comfort of home or the public square. That’s the sort of jurisprudence only well-heeled white-collar criminals — who can pay attorneys to keep the appeals machine spinning until the statute of limitations runs out — could love.
Even so, Lula’s release from prison returns him to the political spotlight, but not the electoral arena. That’s because the “clean slate law” — an anti-corruption initiative Lula himself signed in 2010 — bars anyone with a graft conviction from seeking political office for eight years.
Don’t look for Lula’s boosters to get behind that erstwhile moralizing statute now. His closest aides have made it clear that once out of jail, Brazil’s answer to Nelson Mandela will hit the road to work the crowds and rally the orphaned left. The loyalist mantra: Lula is Brazil’s biggest political prisoner. In fact, they’ve got it exactly backward.
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Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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