By Lisandra Paraguassu
BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is back in the political mix, laying the groundwork in Brasilia this week to challenge far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in next year’s election.
The popular former union leader has not said whether he will run for president in October 2022, but opinion polls show he may have a strong shot at defeating Bolsonaro after the Supreme Court threw out his graft convictions.
With his political rights restored, Lula spent this week in the capital Brasilia meeting allies and former foes in the first steps towards building a coalition against Bolsonaro, whose unorthodox presidency has been criticized at home and abroad for mishandling the coronavirus pandemic and weakening environmental protection of the Amazon rainforest.
Aides and interlocutors said Lula is looking first to forge state-level alliances, starting with the governor’s race in Rio de Janeiro, which is Bolsonaro’s political base and the cradle of the former army captain’s right-wing movement.
The opposition leader in the lower chamber of Congress, Alessandro Molon of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), said Lula showed he was open to backing candidates from other parties on state tickets to form a broad alliance in Rio.
For example, Lula met with Marcelo Freixo, a potential candidate for Rio governor from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSoL), to the left of Lula’s Workers Party (PT).
“I want to see us build a wide front to defeat Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro and then in Brazil,” Freixo said after meeting Lula. “Defeating Bolsonaro is not a left-wing project, it’s a civilized and democratic project.”
Lula also met former House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, of the center-right Democrats party (DEM), which backed the 2016 impeachment of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff.
Maia has emerged as a vocal Bolsonaro critic and is expected to join an opposition coalition in his home state of Rio.
Lula’s most crucial meeting in Brasilia may have been with Gilberto Kassab, whose center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) backed both Rousseff’s 2014 re-election and her 2016 impeachment, which ended 13 years of PT rule.
Kassab’s party supports Bolsonaro and has a minister in the Cabinet, but may back away from the president as criticism mounts over his playing down the pandemic, which slowed an economic recovery and hurt his popularity.
“Lula is back in the game and he is bridge building for now, trying to draw politicians who worked with him when he was in office,” said Creomar de Souza of Dharma Search political risk consultancy in Brasilia.
“But he has to draw the center. Watch Kassab, who reads the political climate very well and can see the wear and tear of Bolsonarismo,” he said.
Two people in Kassab’s party have taken prominent roles in a Senate inquiry of the Bolsonaro government’s approach to the pandemic. The virus has killed more than 415,000 Brazilians, second only to the United States with about 580,000 deaths.
PSD senators Osmar Aziz, who chairs the inquiry, and Otto Alencar, who met with Lula, have attacked Bolsonaro for failing to secure enough vaccines and for advocating unproven “miracle” cures.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Additional reporting and writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Grant McCool)