In Depth

Why is Brazil’s former president Lula so popular?

Presidential frontrunner claims Volodymyr Zelenskyy equally to blame for war

Leftist Brazilian presidential favourite Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy bears equal responsibility with Vladimir Putin for the outbreak of war.

The statement, which places the ex-president known as Lula “at odds with western powers”, was made in an interview with Time and “will probably raise eyebrows in the US and Europe”, The Guardian reported.

“I see the president of Ukraine, speaking on television, being applauded, getting a standing ovation by all the [European] parliamentarians,” he said. “This guy [Zelenskyy] is as responsible as Putin for the war.”

Zelenskyy should have pledged not to join Nato and should seek a negotiated settlement with Putin, he suggested. “We should be having a serious conversation. OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.”

The comments are by no means Lula’s first brush with controversy. 

A Supreme Court judge in Brazil last year annulled corruption convictions against him, paving the way for his ongoing run at regaining the presidency. A towering figure on the Brazilian left, he remains hugely popular despite his legal troubles.

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%. This was largely a result of the rapid economic progress that took place in Brazil under his rule.

But after he stepped down, multiple allegations against Lula and his leftist party emerged. In July 2017, he was convicted of bribery and money laundering as part of Brazil’s biggest ever corruption scandal and sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison.

In January 2018, an appeals court upheld the conviction and increased his sentence to 12 years and one month in prison. Lula always denied the charges, arguing that his trial was politically motivated.

The annulment last year cleared the way for him to run against far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ahead of this year’s election, which is scheduled to take place in October.

Champion of the poor 

A poll published shortly after Lula’s conviction was upheld in January 2018 showed that if an election had been held then, he would have led the race with 34% of the vote. Analysts said at the time that his enduring popularity could 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 reported. 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 added.

And that popularity has not waned. Polling by the New York-based Americas Society shows that he has a nine-point lead over Bolsonaro.

Should he win election, he would probably attempt to recast himself as “a key player on the international stage” who would seek to “build Brazil’s diplomatic clout” in response to Bolsonaro’s more combative approach to foreign relations, The Guardian said.

Lula has always portrayed himself as a “bridge-builder”, the paper said, “maintaining friendly ties with counterparts as disparate as George W. Bush of the US and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran”.

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