Analysis: Why did half the voters in Brazil choose a man who served jail time for corruption?

This latest election in Brazil was a clash of the political titans.

In one corner, outgoing President Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the far-right leader who rose to high office exactly four years ago after having been a congressman for almost two decades.

His opponent, Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva, a former metal worker -- and two-term president -- who had controversially served time in prison on corruption charges, later dismissed on a technicality.

The two men represent the extremes of Brazilian politics, with little or no choice for any middle ground voters.

So why did voters -- narrowly -- choose Lula? In the end it was his respect for Brazil's institutions and people, their freedoms and the country's constitution, which stood in stark contrast to authoritarian, contrarian, and mercurial Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro is a highly divisive figure who has the backing of the military and the evangelical church, and who according to those around him, wears his heart on his sleeve. He's in the habit of saying whatever he wants, without worrying about being ‘politically correct’.

During his time in office, both as a lawmaker and after as the president of one of the largest democracies on the planet, Jair Bolsonaro was never shy about displaying his opinions, and offended many parts of society on the way.

He has consistently attacked the electoral system and its electronic voting machines, which were proven to be secure multiple times. Bolsonaro styled himself on Donald Trump, venerating the former US president, once even publicly declaring his affection saying "I love you" to Trump on the sidelines of the 2019 UN General Assembly in New York.

Luiz Inacio da Silva, or Lula as he became known, is a former metal worker from the northeast, who made the outskirts of Sao Paulo his political base. He rapidly rose to be a union leader with his charisma and very strong views on worker’s rights.

In 1980 Lula, by now the nickname had became a legal one, founded Brazil’s worker’s party, a revolution in a country then dominated by a military dictatorship. At the time, people were not allowed to elect their own representatives, nor claim their basic rights.

But in the 1980s all was changing in Brazilian politics, thanks partly to Lula and his worker's party. Due to pressure from the people who were fed up after decades of heavy-handed brutality by the military in power, millions started to take to the streets shouting Diretas Já (or Direct Voting Now).

The so-called ‘New Republic’ was being formed, as the military started to allow more democratic rights and eventually a direct vote by the people for the first time since 1964. Their time was up and they knew it.

In that context Lula entered his first presidential run in 1989, but lost to Fernando Collor de Mello, an upper class and well-spoken white man of German descent, whose family already dominated the national political scene at the time.

But Collor wasn’t meant to last. And in the first big national scandal of corruption since the dictatorship had ended, Collor was accused of misusing public money in 1992 and impeached. His vice president, Itamar Franco, took over and managed to estabilise the economy, ending the chaotic inflation which had crippled Brazil’s economy in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1994, Lula ran again for the presidency. He faced Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an academic-turned- politician who had created the new currency ‘Real’, while Finance Minister under Itamar Franco. Lula lost again.

FHC, as the former president is referred to, introduced re-election rules for the presidency in 1997. In 1998 another presidential election was due. Lula ran yet again against FHC. And again, he lost.

Lost three out of three

By then Lula accused the media of being stacked against him because of his humble beginnings and his background as former union leader. He had lost three out of three attempts for the Planalto Palace.

In 2002, exactly 20 years ago this week, his big moment came. Lula managed to position himself as a moderate, as a person who was pro-markets and no longer just a left-wing union leader. He charmed media barons and bankers with his new discourse.

His main rival was a very dull former state governor, Jose Serra who represented the right. But it was meant to be Lula’s turn. And with 53 million voters behind him, he finally won the election in the second round.

It was an historic moment as he was not only the first left-wing leader in Brazil, but also the first without formal education and from a very poor family. It was as if the elite had finally lost their grip on the highest office of state.

Now the people’s man was in power.

But corruption allegations under his watch were coming in fast and thick. Nothing was proven, but the damage to his political figure was becoming evident.

Lula run again for the presidency in 2006, and won with 58 million votes in the second round against Geraldo Alckmin, another dull former state governor.

More corruption allegations followed against the worker’s party and their associates, and Lula -- by now a global figure, hailed by Barack Obama as "one of the most popular politicians on Earth" -- somehow managed to deflect the latest slew of accusations.

In 2010 his chosen successor, Dilma Roussef, a former political prisoner during the dictatorship and former cabinet minister under Lula himself, was elected as the first woman president. Not as experienced nor as influential as Lula, Dilma struggled.

Allegations against her party and former boss continued, and Roussef became more and more isolated.

On the back of Lula’s enormous political capital, Roussef was re-elected in 2014. But even more corruption allegations, and combined with a deep economic downturn, led to Dilma’s impeachment in 2016. Lula by then was engulfed in more political scandals. Time was up for the Partido dos Trabalhadores in power.

Sent to prison in disgrace

Lula was judged and convicted for corruption. He was sent to prison in 2018 in disgrace, but maintained that the judge overlooking his case was corrupt and had political interests in keeping him out of the race against Bolsonaro.

The judge, Sergio Moro, soon became Bolsonaro’s justice minister after the 2019 election, the one which Lula was barred from as he was then behind bars. Jair Bolsonaro run for the presidency was based on a promise to end corruption in the country. With Lula in prison, the worker’s party sent Fernando Haddad to face Bolsonaro. But the party’s credibility was broken. Jair Bolsonaro won and took to power at the beginning of 2019.

In a twist worth of a Brazilian telenovela, Lula da Silva, a politician with such a troubled and rich story, has now been elected yet again in 2022. The first person to do so three times in the country’s history. His vice-president elect is the same Geraldo Alckmin who was his opponent in the presidential run back in 2006.

But one might ask why Brazilians would elected such a controversial figure, accused and imprisoned for corruption and let out on a technicality?

Thirty two million Brazilians chose not to exercise their democratic vote in this second round of ballots: that's how many Brazilians abstained, either for not finding themselves represented by either candidate or by fear of political violence. Recent events, mainly related to allies of President Jair Bolsonaro, have put off many people going to the polling stations, despite it being compulsory for Brazilians in and outside of the country.

Lula spent nearly 20 months behind bars in total and had his sentence overturned. He was not acquitted as such. He walked out of prison on the 8th of November 2019 and restored all his political rights.

And the leader’s recent past made him not a palatable choice for 49.1% of the huge Brazilian electorate.

What Lula had in his favour, different to Bolsonaro, are his democratic credentials. Not once has he attacked Brazil’s institutions. He always kept the utmost respect for the Supreme Court and its judges, even when being judged himself.

He has never attacked the black community, which is a majority of the population. He repeatedly defended the rights of minorities and under his leadership gay people acquired the right to adopt.

Lula, in his long political career, was not once caught trying to undermine women’s rights, and he is a defender of the Amazon, under his leadership protection for Brazil's biggest forest were increased, and its peoples were more protected.

And despite all his faults, one can call him a true democrat.

Brazilians no doubt had a tough choice to make, but in the end they stuck with the one who proved time and again, has enormous respect for the Constitution and who thinks questioning it is not an option.