BRASILIA - Luis Inacio Lula da Silva may be in jail but his Workers’ Party (PT) is still backing him to contest presidential elections against the odds, a high-risk strategy that demonstrates the lack of real options.
If there are debates over keeping him on as the party’s candidate in October’s election, they remain out of view for now.
Publicly at least, the party has stepped up displays of unconditional support for its incarcerated cofounder.
The party moved headquarters from Sao Paulo to the southern city of Curitiba, where da Silva was jailed on April 7 after losing his appeal against a corruption conviction.
And only this week, more than 60 Workers’ Party politicians symbolically added “Lula” to their names for official Congress documents and the electronic voting board in a show of solidarity.
The idea is to keep the 72-year-old front and center of the electorate ahead of the election even while he cools his heels in prison, with judges set to rule on the legality of keeping him there. Even then, analysts believe it likely an elections tribunal will ban him from contesting the polls.
“We don’t have a Plan B,” conceded former President Dilma Rousseff earlier this week, adding that the PT will “battle every legal authority so that Lula will be a candidate” for an election he is still favorite to win.
Despite the threat of Brazil’s electoral court disqualifying da Silva, “it is very difficult for the party not to capitalize on such a leader,” said Debora Messenberg, a political sociologist and lecturer at the University of Brasilia.
According to Lincoln Secco, who wrote a history of the Workers’ Party, “Lula and the PT are inseparable.”
“The party has adopted the correct strategy: keep Lula as a candidate, even in prison. How could one not consider Lula as a political prisoner,” said Secco, a historian at the University of Sao Paulo. “Lula did not have a fair trial.”
However, political scientist Paulo Moura says that, “in a way, the PT is a hostage to Lula.”
“Without a prospect of Lula as a candidate, the PT’s base will disintegrate. It’s a dead end because Lula will not be able to campaign in prison.”
Lula himself has steered clear of designating a successor, or even of publicly broaching the subject of a handover.
In a speech to the steelworkers’ union — his last before his arrest — da Silva “made no mention of any possible Workers’ Party candidate,” apart from talking up other leftist party heads as leaders of a new generation, said Secco.
“In this way he has kept the party united behind his defense . . . reinforcing the solidarity felt across the entire left for him,” said Secco.
Despite defeat in municipal elections in 2016 in the aftermath of the impeachment of da Silva’s successor, Rousseff, the PT, founded during Brazil’s military dictatorship, remains a heavyweight political force, controlling the key states of Bahia, Minas Gerais, and boasting a membership of some 1.5 million.
The party has however lost much of its revolutionary luster with the “mensalao” vote-buying scandal in 2005, as well as the recent “Car Wash” scandal and da Silva’s alliances with the right to push through reforms.
Its stronghold is the disadvantaged northeast of Brazil, but it also counts on the support of millions of Brazilians who emerged from poverty to elevate themselves to the ranks of the middle-class during da Silva’s two-term 2003-2010 presidency.
“There is no other leftist party that has the PT’s electoral reach, nor its weight in parliament,” said Messenberg. The PT has 60 seats as against 56 for President Michel Temer’s MDB party.
“The instability and unpopularity of Temer’s government plays into the PT’s hands as the only real opposition party,” said Secco.
But like the majority of analysts Messenberg doesn’t believe da Silva can be a candidate in October’s polls.
“So the PT will have to pull another name out of the hat before October,” she said.
One likely substitute Workers’ Party candidate is ex-Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, another is former minister Jaques Wagner, but the former is unlikely to win unanimous support for a run and Wagner is plagued by suspicions of corruption.
Analyst Carlos Almeida believes the PT will “stay in the game” and tough it out with da Silva for as long as he legally has a chance of running.
“The PT has three months before the official campaigning starts to try to get da Silva out of prison, with campaign caravans, visits, messages from da Silva in prison, that’s the plan,” he said.
“The party will try to maintain the candidacy to the end, so as not to burn another possible candidate,” Messenberg predicted.
But if the electoral court, as many predict, bars him from running?
“The PT is going to have a problem transforming da Silva’s votes into votes for another candidate. Nothing indicates that that’s going to work,” said Secco.