Lula’s Impact on the 2018 Presidential Election in Brazil

On August 4th, the Workers’ Party of Brazil nominated Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as their candidate for the country’s upcoming Presidential election. A former two-term President who served from 2003 to 2011, Lula seems like a qualified candidate for the position. However, Lula is currently imprisoned for corruption charges from his previous time in office. This status makes him an extremely controversial, even illegitimate, choice for the Workers’ party. Lula holds an interesting place in contemporary Brazilian society. To some, Lula is a martyr, to others, he represents the corruption that for so long characterized Brazilian politics. During his prior run for the presidency in 2002, Lula and the Workers’ Party campaign promised to clean up the corruption. Although Lula won the race, his party received only a minority control of congress. Therefore, to achieve substantial policy reform, including reducing poverty, increasing social spending, improving environmental controls, and even reforming the judicial system’s ability to fight corruption, Lula turned to bribery. These bribery payments to members of other minority parties, referred to as mensalãos, were discovered in 2004. In his efforts to fix Brazil’s broken political system, Lula used the very means he was trying to reform. To avoid impeachment and to improve his party’s changes in congress, Lula aligned with Michel Temer and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. As a party, the PMDB contains a wide variety of political factions with a singular unifying goal – taking advantage of the power and money of corrupt Brazilian politics. On an ideological level, the PMDB and the Workers’ Party are opposites, but Lula needed their support to continue passing reforms. In the deal, Temer and the PMDB gained control of the international division of Petrobas – a major semi-public Brazilian petroleum company. The illegality in this agreement lies in the payoffs from the corporation to political campaigns. These payments were later discovered in the famous, ongoing Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) corruption investigation. Lava Jato began in earnest in 2014, during the presidency of Dilma Rousseff. Also a member of the Workers’ Party and Lula’s successor, Rousseff was among several names highlighted in the investigation and by the press, including Lula and oil executive Nestor Cerveró. Ironically, Rouseff’s own reforms from 2013 which introduced plea bargaining for the first time, allowed prosecutors to prohibit cash bonds to wealthy suspects, and selected an independent attorney general to tackle the case. Even with the ethical questions on restricting one’s bond, a majority of the Brazilian public, tired of constant political corruption, supported the investigation and Rousseff allowed it to continue. However, many if the public still blamed the Workers’ Party for the economic crisis and political turmoil that resulted, despite their direct involvement with initiating the investigation. In an attempt to build off of the public’s negative opinion of her, the Speaker of Brazil’s lower house, Eduardo Cunha granted an impeachment request against Rousseff in 2015. A target of the Lava Jato investigation himself, Cunha used this as a way to get back at the Workers’ Party for refusing to protect him from examination. Despite many in congress also being accused of far worse crimes than Rousseff by the Lava Jato investigation, they ultimately still voted to oust Rousseff from office in 2016. Following Rousseff’s impeachment, Michel Temer succeeded her as interim president even though he, along with seven members of his cabinet, were still suspects of the probe. Temer is now protected from any retribution for his crimes through the immunity of his office. This controversy was quickly followed by another when the “incorruptible” justice Teori Zavascki died in a suspicious plane accident, and Temer proceeded to replace him with one of his own cabinet members, Alexandre de Moraes. After so many public controversies, Temer currently suffers from an incredibly low approval rating, barely holding on to the presidency for the PMDB party. From this context, Lula emerges as a desirable candidate for Workers’ Party members to fight the continued corruption at the national level, despite his history and his current imprisonment. In 2011, Lula left office with a notably high approval rating. Despite his corruption charges, many poor and middle class Brazilians remember him as the leader who brought electricity to towns that never had access and improved the lives of the impoverished. Many of his supporters in the Workers’ Party see his imprisonment, recently increased from 9 to 12 years, as an unjust political move to prevent him from running for a third term. This is why, according to recent polls, Lula currently leads with 30% percent of Brazilians say they would “certainly” support him. Recently, a judge in the city of Curitiba, Rogério Favreto ordered Lula’s immediate release from prison. However, the chief appellate judge overseeing Lula’s case immediate overruled the release. Although for now the Workers’ Party seems content to maintain Lula as their nominee, the reality is that they must select an alternative candidate for if, or more likely when, Lula remains an illegitimate option. The decision to keep Lula as the candidate for now is clearly a political move by the party, hoping to bank on his popularity as a martyr for the corruption investigation that is so popular throughout Brazil. However, a few days following the August 4th convention, the party did announce a possible backup candidate, Fernando Haddad, who also has Lula’s support and is planning on running on a similar platform to Lula. When polled, over 50% of Brazilians said they would vote for someone promoted by Lula. Therefore, the Workers’ Party stands a strong chance of winning the upcoming election thanks to Lula’s support, even without him as their candidate.


  1. Associated Press in São Paulo. (2018 Aug 6). " Brazil Workers' party selects backup to jailed presidential candidate". The Guardian.
  2. Shasta Darlington. (2018 Aug 5). "As ‘Lula’ Sits in Brazil Jail, Party Nominates Him for President". The New York Times.
  3. Ernesto Londoño and Manuela Andreoni. (2018 Jul 8). "Judge Orders Brazil to Release Ex-President Lula, Setting Off Legal Uproar". The New York Times.
  4. Felipe Demier. (2018 Jun 4). "The Meaning of Lula’s Imprisonment". Jacobin.

About Author(s)

Mallory.Perillo's picture
Mallory Perillo
Mallory is a Senior at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing dual degrees in Mathematics-Economics and Africana Studies and International & Area Studies with a minor in Spanish. She has studied abroad in Havana, Cuba and Barcelona, Spain. Currently, she is working on her Bachelor of Philosophy thesis analyzing the impact of U.S.-Cuban relations on contemporary race relations in Cuba.