Brazil’s Lula plays kingmaker from his prison cell

CURITIBA/RECIFE (Reuters) – It is Thursday outside a government building in this tidy city in southern Brazil. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the country’s former president, is receiving visitors to plot his political future.

Never mind that this compound, the regional federal police headquarters, doubles as a prison for corrupt politicians. Or that Lula, as this leftist icon is universally known, is serving a 12-year sentence for graft.

Despite his predicament, Lula is still calling the shots in his Workers Party (PT) and engineering another presidential run, underscoring his stature as the most popular modern political figure in Brazil. During his two presidential terms, which ran from 2003 to 2011, the economy soared, poverty plunged and Brazil basked in the international spotlight, winning bids to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

PT lieutenants regularly visit Lula in prison to map out strategy ahead of October’s presidential balloting, eight party insiders told Reuters. This day’s crop included Vagner Freitas, head of Brazil’s most powerful trade union. Lula’s vice presidential running mate Fernando Haddad, and Gleisi Hoffmann, the PT’s president, showed up the following day.

Outside the lock-up, vendors sold T-shirts with Lula’s bearded visage to the partisan crowd. Occasional chants of “Lula president, Lula innocent” filled the air.

His candidacy is the longest of long shots. Convicted felons are banned from running for office. An electoral court is expected in coming weeks to declare him ineligible for October’s race.

Critics decry Lula’s bid as a stunt aimed at motivating the base and propping up Haddad, his likely stand-in. The former mayor of Sao Paulo, Haddad is little-known outside that city – and disliked by many in it.

But in a chaotic political season in Brazil, Lula could be the kingmaker. The presidential contest is unpredictable, loaded with candidates struggling to connect with voters. Brazilians are despondent over their nation’s stagnant economy, rampant violence and ineffective political class.

The PT is betting Lula’s star power can remind voters of more prosperous times when he ran the show. At 72, the charismatic former metal worker still dominates the party he founded and shows no signs of letting prison constrain him.

“There is no question that Lula is a key political actor,” said Ricardo Ismael, a political scientist at the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. “Lula will have tremendous influence even if he is not a candidate. He has prestige and is a political force, mainly with the poorer voters.”

In handwritten letters and conversations relayed by visitors tasked with carrying out his orders, the former president has quelled infighting that had threatened his leadership, both inside the PT and in a coalition of allied parties, several senior party members who have met with Lula in jail told Reuters.

They say he effectively knee-capped a political rival with designs on his mantle, and arranged for his surrogate Haddad to take his place atop the PT ticket should he be barred from running.

Federal prosecutors are fed up with Lula’s maneuvering.

The team whose investigation put him in jail has asked a judge to restrict his jailhouse visitors. In a sealed court document dated June 28 and obtained by Reuters, they said Lula has transformed his cell “into his campaign headquarters.” They want to limit the list to family, clergy and lawyers working specifically on his legal defense.

The judge has yet to make a decision.

Meanwhile, polls show Lula leads a pack of 13 candidates in a potential first-round matchup; the top two vote-getters advance to a run-off if no one wins a majority.

Still, plenty of Brazilians despise the former president, whose big-spending policies and scandals they blame for plunging Brazil into a tailspin. Others are eager to move on to fresh leadership. Some fear his meddling could ultimately deliver the presidency to the race’s most extreme candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right ex-military man who has cheered Brazil’s former dictatorship and delights in sullying Lula’s legacy.

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