Opinion | ‘Lula’ Is in Prison, and Brazil’s Democracy Is in Peril

Opinion | ‘Lula’ Is in Prison, and Brazil’s Democracy Is in Peril


When a huge anti-corruption dragnet sweeps up a country’s most popular politician, justice is served, but democracy is tested. That is the situation facing Brazil, where Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known simply as Lula to his ardent followers — surrendered to police on Saturday night to start serving a prison sentence for corruption and money laundering. Thus begins a tumultuous and unpredictable course to elections in October.

It is a measure of Mr. da Silva’s fall that a plaque on the federal police building where he is being held bears his name as the president who dedicated the building in 2007. Back then, he was globally hailed for fighting poverty and inequality, and was proclaimed by President Barack Obama as “the most popular politician on earth.” Hundreds of Mr. da Silva’s die-hard followers were camped outside the building, the vanguard of a powerful cohort that would gladly vote Mr. da Silva back into the presidency despite his conviction.

Mr. da Silva’s imprisonment is only one outcome, albeit the most dramatic, of federal investigations that began in 2014 into bribery by the state-owned oil company Petrobras and the construction giant Odebrecht. “Operation Car Wash” and related investigations have generated hundreds of indictments and convictions, many in the highest levels of Brazil’s government and corporate elite, along with multibillion-dollar corporate fines.

The sweep has struck a major blow against corruption in the largest and most populous country of South America, but it has also destabilized the country’s political system, helped push the economy into recession and left thousands unemployed. How Brazil weathers the crisis will be watched carefully by nations suffering from deeply entrenched corruption.

Polls show that Mr. da Silva still commands by far more support than any other Brazilian politician. His imprisonment, though, makes it most unlikely — though not impossible — that he will be able to run for president in October. His defense team hopes that the Supreme Court will rule that jailing him before he had exhausted his appeals was unconstitutional, but other investigations against him are underway.

That leaves the field, and the future, wide open. Without Mr. da Silva, the left has begun to fragment. His successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for breaking budget rules; her successor, Michel Temer, the current president, has been charged with corruption and his popularity rating is near zero. Left to its own devices, the Congress is not likely to support any anti-corruption drive. About a third of the legislators face legal challenges but are effectively protected by a Constitution under which high officials and politicians can be tried only in the high courts, which move slowly and rarely convict. For all the successes of Operation Car Wash, nothing has been done to fix the judicial system. The danger of a lurch to populism and political radicalization is obvious.

However painful and disheartening the fall of a charismatic and dynamic leader, and however exhausted Brazilians must be from the political havoc of recent years, this is not the time to give up. History shows that battling corruption takes years, but also that incremental successes do change norms. Judges like Sérgio Moro, who has courageously led the prosecution in Operation Car Wash, have demonstrated that Brazil does have the institutions and means to take on even the most powerful — and most popular — of malefactors.

There are still six months to go before the national elections. They should be spent in search of a leader who can ensure that the gains against corruption are not setbacks for democracy.



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