Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva arrives at Federal Justice for a testimony in Curitiba, Brazil. Picture: REUTERS
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva arrives at Federal Justice for a testimony in Curitiba, Brazil. Picture: REUTERS

Political legends are hard to come by these days in Brazil, where both houses of parliament, a batch of current and former governors, and much of the sitting presidential cabinet have been tainted by charges of graft and payola. But then Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the two-time president who put Brazil's name in lights and left office in 2010 practically beatified, isn't just any politician. So when Lula, as he is known to all, takes the stand in federal court this afternoon, in one of five corruption trials he now faces, listen for the sound of clay feet cracking.

To his devotees and boosters in the left-wing Workers Party, of course, the case is a travesty of justice and a political call to arms. Police in the southern city of Curitiba, where "companheiro" -- comrade -- Lula is on trial, are bracing for the worst, including tumultuous street protests. Given the country's still toxic political mood following the impeachment last year of Lula's hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, the fear isn't far-fetched. Judge Sergio Moro, who presides over the so-called Carwash investigation of political corruption, even took to social media to call for civic restraint. He'll have his hands full just managing the war of attrition in court, where Lula's scrum of lawyers has called 87 defense witnesses.

The quarrel in Curitiba is about more than just carping partisans. What's immediately at stake in the Lula trial is whether even sainted leaders can be made to bow to the law. The larger and far more vexing question is whether Brazil can shake the grip of a political elite that has dominated public office and helped itself to the spoils for most of the past four decades. In that sense, the Carwash case has been nothing if not ecumenical; hardly a political kingpin or party (there are 28 in Congress) has been left unscathed as prosecutors have chased the trail of dirty money from corporate boardrooms across the ideological fantail of Brazil's political system.

In that, maybe there's little surprise. For most of Brazil's modern history, the country has been managed by competing oligarchies. What's jolting is that Brazil's most disciplined political force, the Workers Party, or PT in Brazilian shorthand, and its biggest political celebrity have become part of the cliché. After all, the onetime union organizer took the blue-collar party from rabble-rousing ignominy under the dictatorship to democratic glory through four straight elections -- two for Lula, and two more for Rousseff -- and then back to ignominy, as the Carwash investigators caught up with the crooked companheiros. "If once the PT stood for building something new and cleansing in politics, now it's become more of the same, just part of the traditional furniture of Brazilian politics," political analyst Octavio Amorim Neto, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, told me.

Through it all, remarkably, Lula has prevailed, serving as the PT's founding father, its unrivaled public face and lone viable national candidate. Even today, pushing 72, having survived a bout of cancer, and now fighting to stay out of jail, he is the party's default pick for the 2018 elections. And despite his legal woes, and the party's rap sheet, he also happens to lead the crowded Brazilian field, polling around 30 percent of voter preferences. That's political capital he garnered during the roaring 2000s, when Brazil rode the global commodities boom and his government admirably decanted some of the largesse into popular social programs. No matter that his government's spendthrift policies and crony capitalism also set up Brazil for a massive corruption scandal and the worst recession on record. Ultimately, Lula's durability says less about the graying populist's lingering cachet than about the sclerotic political elite he represents. "How can the PT still claim to be Brazil's transformative party if its leading figure has been the same for the last 37 years?" Amorim said.

Lula is hardly alone. Rousseff's replacement as president, Michel Temer, 76, hails from the Brazilian Democratic Movement, which has held box seats in every administration since the return of democracy in 1985, while the opposition's leading man is former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a Social Democrat, who turns 86 next month. Both parties are up to their Windsor knots in Carwash troubles. In that way, Lula's date in court is also a trial for the country's entire political class.

But that won't cut him any slack with Judge Moro, who in three years has handed down 131 Carwash convictions and jail sentences totaling 1,377 years. The evidence against Lula is compelling, including damning plea-bargain testimony from penitent contractors, one of whom has admitted to remodeling a fancy beachside apartment at the former president's behest on the corporate dime. Even now, however, Lula has some political wiggle room. He may be jailed only if he is convicted in Moro's court and the sentence is subsequently upheld on appeal, which could take years. That would allow him the liberty to do what he's done best for four decades -- hit the campaign trail and use the stump to decry a witch hunt.  

Such an outcome will do little to mollify a society already bilious over crooked dealings in the highest office. Still, it could help the country work out a larger encumbrance: the burden of its ghosts. A guilty verdict in criminal court, no matter how convincing, would feed the polarizing narrative that Lula is a victim, not a villain. His adversaries, in turn, would have to swallow that their greatest rival was taken down by the cops and courts but never at the polls.

Brazil has been here before: In the mid-20th century, the legendary populist leader and sometime dictator Getulio Vargas, whom Lula emulates, was driven to suicide, but died unbeaten in elections, Amorim noted. Corruption-scalded Brazilians deserve to see justice done, but also a shot at political closure. Ballots would serve that purpose much better than a prison.

- Bloomberg

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