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Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva went from jail to frontrunner

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

It's not often that a jailed politician engineers a comeback, one that propels him back to the highest office in the land. This scenario could be unfolding in Brazil. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former Brazilian president and an icon of the Latin American left, was sent to prison in 2018 on corruption charges. Now Lula is out of jail, and he's the frontrunner ahead of Brazil's presidential election in October. NPR's John Otis reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

(CHEERING)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The crowd roared when Lula, as the former president is widely known, took the stage for a recent campaign rally here in the northeast city of Garanhuns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: Lula is now a 76-year-old survivor of throat cancer. His voice sounds like a growl. Still, he claimed to have the energy of a man 40 years younger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LULA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: "Comrades," he said, "I want to tell you, I am coming back." These are sweet words for many Brazilians who consider Lula a working-class hero. He grew up in extreme poverty, just a few miles from Garanhuns.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: In fact, before his speech, he drew a small crowd as he visited a replica of the mud hut where he was raised. His parents were farmers who could barely feed their eight children, says Jose Crispiniano, a spokesman for Lula.

JOSE CRISPINIANO: He never ate bread until 7 years old.

OTIS: After moving to Sao Paulo, Lula dropped out of school to shine shoes, then lost a finger while working in an auto parts factory. He became a union negotiator, then helped form the Workers' Party, the first major left-wing party in the country's history. He won the presidency in 2002 and, during eight years in office, oversaw an economic boom that cut poverty by half.

MARIA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: Among his admirers is Maria da Silva, who attended his rally in Garanhuns. She's a subsistence farmer who received government cash stipends during Lula's presidency.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: "I'll always be on his side," she said.

After leaving office, Lula's reputation came crashing down when he was convicted in a wide-ranging corruption probe involving the state oil company. In 2018, he began serving a 12-year prison sentence. But the Supreme Court annulled the case, citing procedural errors, and Lula was freed. He immediately jumped back into politics.

Mauricio Santoro teaches international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

MAURICIO SANTORO: Many people believe it that Lula political career was over, and now he staged this incredible comeback. I mean, there is no parallel for that in the Brazil history.

OTIS: Lula's candidacy - this will be his sixth run for the presidency - is also a sign of his decades-long domination of the Workers' Party, says Pedro Doria, a Rio de Janeiro writer.

PEDRO DORIA: He's ruthless in the way he leads the Workers' Party. So no new leadership ever appeared that could be bigger than him.

OTIS: Critics also say that Lula is campaigning mostly on nostalgia and has failed to lay out a blueprint for Brazil's future. Even so, Lula is way ahead in the polls. Doria says the main reason is growing anger with Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's populist right-wing president. Bolsonaro is widely blamed for mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed more people in Brazil than in any other nation except the U.S. Even more damaging for the incumbent, Brazil's economy is stagnating, with high unemployment and inflation. Lula would inherit these same tough conditions, making a successful third term a huge challenge. But there's another reason Lula is running.

CHRISTOPHER LYNCH: What is really urgent is to remove Bolsonaro from power to avoid dictatorship.

OTIS: That's Rio political analyst Christopher Lynch. He points out that Bolsonaro is a former army captain who's called on the military to oversee the vote count in October. And like his idol, former U.S. President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has refused to say whether he would leave office peacefully if he loses. Lynch says Lula could help save Brazil's democracy.

LYNCH: I think he realized that he's the only one who can easily beat Bolsonaro.

OTIS: At his campaign rally in Garanhuns, Lula vowed to do just that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LULA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: "Together," he told the crowd, "we will confront Bolsonaro, defeat him and improve life for the Brazilian people."

John Otis, NPR News, Garanhuns, Brazil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.