The former union boss emerged after serving 580 days of a nine-year sentence for corruption, which he always denied, breathing contempt for the former army officer who had been elected during his incarceration.
“I’m back,” he told delirious supporters.
But in the year since Lula has failed to galvanise the fortunes of the Workers’ Party, which he led into power in 2003 as Brazil’s first working-class president, only to watch it bundled out of office 13 years later amid the corruption scandal that eventually landed him in jail.
Despite Bolsonaro’s first two years in power being marked by administrative chaos, corruption investigations into the first family and a failed pandemic response that produced one of the world’s highest death rates for Covid-19, Lula’s party performed poorly in local elections this month.
It did see its vote increase slightly on four years ago, when its fortunes reached rock bottom with the impeachment of Lula’s handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff. But its support is still less than half of what it was in 2012 when it won 630 municipalities, including the crown jewel of São Paulo, whose city hall controls a bigger budget than most Brazilian states.
This month, the party that was once the largest left-wing movement in Latin America won just 189 of the country’s 5,570 municipalities, most of them smaller towns.
The party’s leadership has sought to deflect from the poor performance by talking up its chances in 15 races it will contest on Sunday, when 57 cities will hold a run-off round.
Among the prizes are two state capitals in Vitória and Recife that would be important wins for a party that was pushed out of Brazil’s big cities in 2016.
“If we win half of the races we are in on Sunday then the party will emerge with its musculature greatly strengthened,” says federal deputy José Guimarães, party vice-president.
But even if it does well on Sunday the Workers’ Party will no longer be the dominant force on the left of Brazil’s political spectrum. Its sometimes allies, sometimes rivals – the Democratic Labour Party and the Socialists – both won more municipalities in the local elections than it did, though on smaller shares of the vote. And the breakout star on the left these elections is Guilherme Boulos of the small Socialism and Liberty Party, who trounced the Workers’ Party candidate in the party’s birthplace of São Paulo to force his way into a run-off against the centrist incumbent mayor in the country’s most populous city.
The successes of these other parties will likely only complicate efforts to construct a broad left-wing front to take on Bolsonaro. Lula has as good as thrown his hat into the 2022 presidential election, despite currently being unable to run for public office because of his legal woes – he was released from jail while he appeals his convictions.
The rest of the Brazilian left says it wants to discuss an alliance, but one that is no longer automatically organised around Lula, a strategy the communist governor of Maranhão Flávio Dino calls “with the Workers’ Party but going beyond the Workers’ Party”.
In part this is driven by the perception that the Workers’ Party brand is still toxic among most Brazilians. This month’s results show the anti-Workers’ Party wave that broke over the country in 2016 is yet to recede. The party is also visibly ageing and struggles with campaigning in an age of social media.
But the current Workers’ Party leadership seems determined to insist that Lula head any coalition. “Whatever the scenario is Lula will always be the great reference,” says Guimarães, when asked if his party will insist on Lula leading any left-wing front. “He always was and will be. He is the greatest leader of [the] left in the country and his party has most votes. They would be strong candidates in 2022. It depends on his own disposition.”
Such a posture risks alienating potential allies. Early talks between Lula and other left-wing leaders on an alliance for 2022 have been marked by disagreements.
“The great dilemma of the left is it needs to unite everyone, including the Workers’ Party,” says André Pereira César of the Hold political consultancy in Brasília. “But the Workers’ Party will have to accept it cannot always head the ticket. This means negotiations, but these never advance and this only benefits adversaries, whether bolsonarismo or the centre-right.”