For a man behind bars, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been on a tear. In recent weeks, his followers have taken to the streets in his name. Foreign celebrities and world leaders including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate have sung his praises. Even Pope Francis reportedly sent him blessings. No other candidate comes close in the polls for the Oct. 7 presidential elections.
That’s not half bad for the political leader whom two Brazilian courts found guilty of graft and money laundering, and sent away for 12 years. Never mind that according to an acclaimed anti-corruption law, such ignominy makes him ineligible to run for office for the next eight years. Nor that his willful big spending, and his handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff, set up Brazil for its worst recession and a decade of payola and graft scandals.
Fact is, Lula is an asbestos icon for conflagrated times. True, a large share of voters -- 47 percent, according to a poll by BTG Pactual -- say they wouldn’t vote for him “by any means.” Yet his enduring charisma and common-man touch, buoyed by the felicitous run of prosperity Brazil enjoyed on his watch, have insulated him from the disgrace tarring much of the rest of the ethically challenged political establishment.
Hence the bracing campaign refrain: “Elections without Lula are a fraud!” -- a fair enough slogan for home-grown ideologues and party hacks.
It’s another matter, though, for international observers and scholars to take up the mantra -- and passing strange that the same foreign critics who rightly upbraid Brazil for its indulgence of crooked officials now dismiss the country for playing by the book, even when it means bringing a legend to justice.
To hear them tell it, Lula is a tropical Nelson Mandela. “This is not just about one man but the future of democracy in Brazil,” a group of UK parliamentary representatives wrote in an open letter to the Guardian last April. “Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been jailed on unproven charges,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and 28 other US lawmakers claimed in July.
Last week, Mexico’s former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda took the quarrel up an octave on the op-ed page of the New York Times, finishing with a Jacobin flourish. Yes, justice was served in the Lula case, he allowed. And yet the charges “are too flimsy” and “the purported crime so petty, the sentence so brazenly disproportionate and the stakes so high that in Latin America today, democracy should trump -- so to speak -- the rule of law,” Castaneda wrote.
Such kibitzing has a familiar ring. For years, Cuba under Fidel Castro was flypaper to rich world rebels anxious for a whiff of authentic third-world revolution. More recently attentions shifted to Venezuela, which under the care of the late self-styled Bolivarian revolutionary Hugo Chavez drew a steady stream of flyby celebrities, from Sean Penn to Noam Chomsky.
Now post-Castro Cuba is flogging pro-market reforms, Venezuela is imploding and the leftist pink tide elsewhere in Latin America is ebbing. Thus the need for Lula’s apotheosis from felon to political prisoner, with Brazil filling in for the Sierra Maestra.
That’s a reductive storyline that -- together with the trope that all politicians are crooked, anyway -- critics abroad can easily grasp and repeat. It’s a chorus that validates a “scorched earth” mentality, as O Estado de Sao Paulo put it, favoring “the rise of populist adventurers” pushing “anti-system” miracles and false fixes.
Yet these are attitudes in search of an opportunity, and as such easy prey for misconception. “There seems to be an inability to acknowledge that Brazil has changed,” said Fernando Schuler, a political analyst at Insper, a Sao Paulo business school. “The judiciary is independent. Public institutions are working, and the democratic constitution that closed the door on dictatorship has just turned 30 years old.”
There’s no exception for celebrity or services rendered in Brazil’s new democratic pact. Lula and Rousseff appointed most of the justices on the 11-seat Supreme Court, which has rendered harsh corruption convictions against higher-ups and allies from their governments. The same bench presided over Rousseff’s drawn out, rules-heavy impeachment, which went through multiple votes in both legislative chambers.
Likewise, Lula is in jail because the same Supreme Court recently upheld a rule it set less than two years ago that criminals be imprisoned if their convictions are upheld after one appeal. And, failing a Hail Mary appeal before the electoral court, he won’t be on the October ballot thanks to the Clean Slate exclusion for dirty politicians -- a law Lula himself signed in 2010.
Despite its flaws, “Brazil’s democracy is now consolidated and working,” said Schuler. That’s so because of the rule of law, not despite it.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. -- Ed.