MS Risk Blog

Assessment of Lula da Silva’s Corruption Trial

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Key Judgements


On January 24, 2018, the three magistrates of a Court of Porto Alegre confirmed the conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for his involvement in the Lava Jato case, internationally known as the Petrobras case, and increased his sentence from nine to twelve years in prison. The most popular former president of Brazil tries to exhaust all possible resources before the courts to gain time and be able to stand for the general elections in October, in which he is leading the race according to the polls, and thus get rid of the penalties once he obtains immunity from the charge; a strategy that has been affected by the court’s order.


The Lava Jato case began with investigations into the irregular supply at various car wash stations, the accused showed suspicious links with the highest political and business elites in Brazil. It is then when the biggest case of corruption in the history of Brazil is uncovered, which consisted of money laundering in car wash stations and gas stations, and a network of bribes to the Brazilian political elites that took place since the government of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1997. The investigation reaches Lula in November 2015, when the head of the Workers’ Party (PT) in the Senate was arrested by the police and confessed the involvement of the former president in the case. In that moment begins a detailed investigation by the prosecution that leads to accusing the former president up to five times on various charges; but it was not until the sixth, in July of 2017, that the judge accused Lula of corruption and money laundering, charges that meant nine years in prison for Lula, and his disqualification from holding public office. A countdown begins for the former president, who sees the general elections of October 2018, and the immunity of the office of president, as the only formula to get rid of prison and undertakes an arduous legal battle to exhaust all possible resources and delay the execution of the sentence. On January 24, 2018, the court that reviewed his case at second instance, confirmed the guilt of Lula and increased the penalty from nine to twelve years in prison, which leaves the former president at the gates of the prison, being the appeal to the Supreme Federal Court his last way.


The case against former president Lula has deeply divided Brazilian society. Part of the population sees the process as a right action by the Justice against the biggest case of corruption in the history of Brazil, which inevitably has swept away the former president for having occurred during his terms, and for having personally profited by accepting a luxurious apartment on the Brazilian coast in exchange for political favours. But a large part of the population sees the case as an excess of the judiciary, which is an accomplice of a persecution promoted by political interests to erase Lula from the map; this part of the population, from humbler beginnings and left-wing sectors, see the seven years of Lula’s term as the best time in modern Brazil, and they have a point, Lula’s government coincided with the bonanza decade of the Brazilian economy and the former president barely had to make reforms to collect the fruits of that prosperity; moreover, during his government, social aid was increased and more than 30 million Brazilians were driven out of poverty. The former president, from a humble family, left school at the age of nine and started working at 14, knows the difficulties of the lower class and is therefore seen as the best defence by the working classes in Brazil; but for others he represents a common politician, who knows how to play politics without offending the establishment and who has used the stalest populism to maintain his quota of power and enrich himself.

In the PT they know of Lula’s popularity among the electorate and have encouraged social conflict to avoid the accusation of the former president and his entry into prison, given that he is the only current guarantor that would allow the PT to return to the Government of Brazil. In turn, the PT uses the process against Lula as a weapon against its political adversaries and, according to all the polls, it has served to attract a large part of the population to its cause. A recent poll shows that Lula is the favourite candidate to occupy the position of president with 34% of the votes, followed by the candidate of the right, Jair Bolsonaro, with 17%, the environmental leader, Marina Silva (9%), the governor of Sao Paulo, Gerardo Alckmin (6%), and the ex-governor of Ceará, Ciro Gomes (6%). However, if Lula were left out of the presidential race, Bolsonaro would get 21% of the votes, followed by Ciro Gomes (16%), Marina Silva (12%) and Gerardo Alckmin (8%).

Lula only has the option of taking his case to the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil (SFT) and hope the case will not be resolved before August 15, when he could register as a candidate for the electoral appointment, and his case would be under the jurisdiction of the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) that has already announced that, with a condemnation by unanimity in the second instance as occurs in his case, they would discard his candidacy ipso facto, but would grant Lula a second appeal before the SFT whose resolution could in fact come even between the first and the second round of the presidential elections, which would further complicate the Brazilian political crisis.


There is a high probability that Lula cannot be elected president, and this is, to a large extent, the result of the reinforcement of the Judiciary during his mandates to prosecute corruption, which has resulted in an ironclad Justice, largely independent and resistant to political interests.

Although in public the PT continues to defend the candidacy of Lula, even ensuring that “an election without Lula would be a fraud”, internally the party’s executive admits being considering other names like the former mayor of Sao Paulo, Fernando Haddad, or the former governor of Bahia, Jacques Wagner. But the party will use Lula’s importance in the media to agitate the leftist electorate and unite the left-wing parties to snatch the government from Michel Temer. This alteration of the electorate could lead to greater confrontation and division among Brazilians, which could seriously damage social coexistence and mark Brazilian society for decades. President Temer himself has already warned the judges that it is preferable for Lula to stand for election and be defeated, than to prevent him from attending and facilitate a leftist bloc whose only mandate before his enraged voters is to undertake a systematic revenge against the judicial system and the opposition.

The consequences of a hypothetical return of Lula to the presidency of Brazil, or the arrival of a leftist bloc fuelled by the rejection towards the country’s justice for the imprisonment of the former president, would not only shake the coexistence in Brazil, but would have regional consequences. The return of the left to Brasilia would alter the liberal centre-right system that has been spreading in South America since Mauricio Macri won the elections in Argentina in 2015, and Temer held the position of president of Brazil in 2016, followed by the return of Sebastián Piñera to the Presidency of Chile. This would alter the ideological arithmetic of Mercosur, one of the largest common markets in the world, in favour of a socialist protectionism that would increase even more when Bolivia obtains the status of full member, something that would put at risk the role of Mercosur worldwide, risking free trade agreements that the bloc could sign, such as the one currently in negotiations with the European Union, and would entail an economic deceleration of the member countries. The regional consequences could even lead to a lifeline to the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, as former President Lula was already very critical with the decision of Mercosur to suspend the Caribbean country, accusing the other countries of interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs, a country with whose leaders has shown great affinity and friendship in the past, which could have a very negative impact on the Venezuelan socio-political crisis and further deteriorate the democratic quality of Venezuela. The Argentinian president has already stated during the World Economic Forum in Davos that he expects the economic reforms to be continued regardless of the president elected in Brazil, and that he commits himself to a strong Mercosur, since for years Mercosur was the most closed region of the world, and that did not benefit the citizens at all.