In Depth

Why is Brazil’s Lula still so popular?

Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva still enjoys strong public support despite facing lengthy jail term for corruption

Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been ordered to start serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption, dashing his hopes of returning to power.

The nation’s Supreme Court today ruled that the popular but deeply divisive politician, known simply as Lula, must be imprisoned while appealing his conviction on charges including money laundering and accepting kickbacks during his presidency.

But despite his legal woes, the 72-year-old is leading the polls in the run-up to this year’s presidential election and remains the most dominant figure in Brazilian politics, says Bloomberg.

 “To millions of Brazilians, he is still the radical champion of the poor,” says the news site.

From popular president to convicted criminal

The former steel worker and union boss left office in 2011 with an approval rating of more than 80% - largely due to the rapid economic progress that took place in Brazil under his rule.

Since then, multiple allegations against Lula and his leftist party have emerged. Last July he was convicted of bribery and money laundering as part of Brazil's biggest ever corruption scandal, known as Operation Car Wash, and sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison.

In January, an appeals court upheld the conviction and increased his sentence to 12 years and one month in prison.

Lula has always denied the charges, arguing that his trial was politically motivated, and has vowed to stand in the presidential election in October.

“Only one thing will take me off the streets of this country, and it will be the day of my death,” he said at a rally earlier this year.

His conviction is likely to bar him from the race, as candidates are forbidden from running for public office for eight years after being found guilty of a crime, Reuters reports.

However, “some exemptions have been made in the past, and the ultimate decision in Lula’s case would be made by the top electoral court if and when Lula officially files to be a candidate”, adds the news site.

Champion of the poor 

A poll published shortly after Lula’s conviction was upheld in January showed that if an election had been held then, he would have led the race with 34% of the vote.

Analysts say his enduring popularity can be attributed to his commitment to social justice, as well as the economic prosperity ordinary Brazilians experienced during his tenure.

“In his time in office, Lula pumped billions of dollars into social programmes and can reasonably claim to have helped reverse Brazil's historic inequalities,” the BBC reports.

By increasing the minimum wage well above the rate of inflation and broadening state help to the most impoverished, he helped some 44 million people and cemented his support among the poor, the broadcaster adds.  

“Despite the fact that he stole, during his government I was doing better,” one voter told The New York Times

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