By Leonardo Benassatto
SAO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil (Reuters) - Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday both fired an early starting gun on a 2022 election set to be dominated by the raging pandemic, a weak economy and deep political polarization.
In his first public comments since his graft convictions were annulled by a Supreme Court justice on Monday, Lula said he had not decided whether to run in next year's election.
But his long, impassioned speech, delivered under a banner proclaiming "Health, jobs and justice for Brazil" in the union where his political career took off in the 1980s, had the feel of a campaign launch.
"This country is disorganized and falling apart because it has no government," he told the audience at the metalworkers union in Sao Bernardo do Campo, comparing the current economic crisis to strong growth and falling inequality when he led Brazil from 2003 until 2011.
Lula attacked Bolsonaro directly for his record in handling the coronavirus pandemic, especially for delays in obtaining vaccines and for his public dismissal of their effectiveness. Brazil has lost nearly 270,000 people to COVID-19, the worst death toll outside the United States, as local variants push the country's outbreak into its worst phase yet.
"Many of these deaths could have been avoided," Lula said.
The former president's speech prompted an immediate reaction from Bolsonaro, who defended his handling of the pandemic.
"(Lula's criticism) is unjustified. He is now beginning his campaign, but has nothing good to show. Their campaign is merely to criticize, lie and promote disinformation," Bolsonaro told CNN Brasil.
He said he would propose legislation restoring paper ballots that can be audited for the 2022 election because he does not trust the electronic balloting.
Bolsonaro added that the corruption convictions against Lula have not yet been annulled by the full bench of the Supreme Court, meaning a 2022 election run may not be guaranteed.
However, there were signs that Lula's messaging on the pandemic had rattled Bolsonaro. Within hours of Lula's criticism, Bolsonaro and his aides appeared masked at an official event in Brasilia — a rare sighting for the president, who has shunned masks, played down the gravity of the virus and said he would refuse a vaccine.
"We were tireless from the first moment in fighting the pandemic," he said, saying that Brazil would have 400 million vaccine doses by the end of this year.
LULA MAKES HIS PITCH
In his speech, Lula cast himself as a veteran statesman eager to set the country on the right track, stressing his respect for the free press, business leaders and the military, while calling for a broad coalition to defeat Bolsonaro.
"I was called 'conciliatory' when I governed," he said. "I'm open to talking with everyone."
However, Lula also reinforced longstanding views that have set financial markets on edge at the prospect of his political resurrection. The former union leader decried privatizations, central bank autonomy and asset sales by state-run oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras.
"Those who are buying things from Petrobras had best be afraid, because we can change a lot," Lula said. "If the market wants to live off us selling national patrimony, then they should be afraid of me."
A survey by pollster Real Time Big Data, released by CNN Brasil on Wednesday, showed both Lula and Bolsonaro with the support needed to reach a second-round vote.
(Reporting by Leonardo Benassatto; Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro, Ricardo Brito in Brasilia; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Brad Haynes, Chizu Nomiyama, Alistair Bell and Aurora Ellis)