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Lula verdict plunges Brazil into political chaos ahead of presidential election

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Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled April 5 that former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, one of Brazil's most influential politicians, must go to jail before he can appeal a corruption conviction. (Reuters)

A supreme court decision early Thursday to jail former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva effectively removed the front-runner in Brazil’s presidential election later this year, creating a vacuum that recasts the political landscape in Latin America’s largest country.

After a marathon session, the chief justice cast a tie-breaking vote to reject Lula’s plea to avoid jail while he pursues further appeals of a corruption conviction. The verdict jolted Lula’s supporters on the left, which has no clear candidate ready to replace him in the October vote, and elevated the prospects of Jair Bolsonaro, a divisive right-wing populist who has been running second to him in the polls.

“It’s going to be a very tumultuous election. The left has lost its reference,” said Carlos Melo, a professor of political science at the Insper Institute of Education and Research in Sao Paulo. “The right is fragmented, too. We will see disputes for bands of voters along the fault lines.”

The split court reflected the polarized public opinion of Lula, 72, a charismatic figure who is credited with lifting 20 million people out of poverty during his eight years in office but also has been ensnared by criminal allegations.

In January, an appeals court sentenced him to 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering in a case stemming from the investigation into what is known as the “Car Wash” operation, the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history.

Lula, who denies any wrongdoing, could be jailed as soon as next week.

The court’s decision Thursday will provide long-awaited clarity on Brazil’s political landscape, which had been obscured by uncertainty over Lula’s fate.

According to polling, the former president would win the election by a landslide. In the latest polls, conducted in January, he had the support of 36 percent of likely voters, double the number backing Bolsonaro.

Under Brazilian law, his conviction bars him from running for public office, but Lula and the Workers’ Party he founded in 1980 have said his campaign will continue from behind bars.

“The Brazilian people have the right to vote for Lula, the candidate of hope. The Workers’ Party will defend his candidacy in the streets in all circumstances, until the end,” the party said in a statement Thursday.

Despite his vow to preserve his candidacy, many expect Lula to anoint a successor to represent the party in October. Whether he is seen as a victim or martyr once he is in prison could determine the political viability of such a candidate.

But the left has struggled to find a replacement capable of filling Lula’s shoes. Discussing alternative candidacies in the event of Lula’s imprisonment has been taboo inside the Workers’ Party, which has united behind its longtime leader throughout his trial.

“The party doesn’t have many options because Lula was so central and important. But you can’t keep insisting on Lula forever,” Melo said. “Someone will have to take over this role.”

Even if the left is able to draft an alternate, there is no guarantee he or she would automatically inherit Lula’s votes. A third of his supporters plan to cast protest votes if he is barred from running, according to a February poll. Veteran center-left candidates Marina Silva and Ciro Gomes would split another third of the votes.

Lula’s exit is expected to usher Bolsonaro to the top of the polls, according to the latest predictions. Famous for his controversial posts on social media, Bolsonaro is campaigning on a tough-on-crime platform and has publicly expressed his admiration for Brazil’s two-decade-long dictatorship, which ended in 1985.

According to analysts, he is likely to benefit from the country’s widening political divisions.

“The greater the divide, the more intolerant the situation becomes, the closer Bolsonaro comes to being president of Brazil,” said Marcos Troyjo, co-director of the BRICLab at Columbia University, which studies Brazil, China, India and Russia.

Read more https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/lula-verdict-plunges-brazil-into-political-chaos-ahead-of-presidential-election/2018/04/05/a215bb1a-386e-11e8-af3c-2123715f78df_story.html