I n Brazil, only Jesus Christ beats me [in popularity],” former President Inácio Lula da Silva declared in September last year, tearfully denying corruption allegations against him and his family. Although he is probably no longer the most popular politician “on Earth”, as ex-US President Barack Obama said in 2009, he retains the highest favourability ratings in Brazil. But the latest investigations into the enormous Odebrecht scandal - which has upended Brazilian politics and is shaking governments elsewhere in Latin America - have put the Lula myth in danger.
Testimony from 78 executives at Odebrecht, South America’s biggest construction conglomerate, leave very few Brazilian politicians and business personalities untainted, including eight ministers in the government of President Michel Temer. Local media has dubbed them the “end of the world confessions”. But they are particularly damaging for Mr. Lula’s image as a union leader of humble origins who became the voice of Brazil’s working class and an integral part of Latin America’s ‘pink tide’.
The new accusations link Odebrecht’s international bribery scheme with Mr. Lula’s political success, suggesting that company founder Emilio Odebrecht financed three of his presidential campaigns. Judge Sergio Moro has summoned Mr. Lula to a court in southern Brazil on May 3 to discuss these and other allegations. “It's going to be the first opportunity I'll have to know what the accusation is against me and what kind of evidence they have,” Mr. Lula told Brazilian Radio O Povo.
While the legendary leader is ensnared in Odebrecht’s long tentacles, some observers think the new accusations may be politically motivated. In January, Mr. Lula announced that he might run in the 2018 presidential election; in February, polls showed him leading the race, way ahead of Mr. Temer.
83% of Brazilians approved of Mr. Lula’s administration when he left the presidency in 2010, according to a survey by pollster Datafolha.
Mr. Temer “has low popularity and no legitimacy recognised by either the impoverished crowds or the social or economic elites”, Brazilian political analyst Roberto Romano told The World Weekly. By contrast, Mr. Lula has always been a populist leader, “with great experience in negotiating with all sectors of society”.
For Mr. Romano, the current political crisis opens up a number of possible scenarios, ranging from the end of Mr. Lula’s career to the announcement of a national accord that would save him and other politicians from being convicted.