Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva launched his bid for the Brazilian presidency on Saturday with a raucous campaign event that focused on building a big tent coalition to oust incumbent leader Jair Bolsonaro.
Taking to the stage in São Paulo in front of thousands of members of his leftwing Workers’ party, the former president commonly known as Lula was greeted by thunderous applause and saccharine musical jingles heralding “the flourishing of hope”.
“More than a political act, this is a call — to men and women of all generations, all classes, all religions, all races, all regions of the country — to regain democracy and regain sovereignty,” said the 76-year-old, at times appearing emotional.
The event capped a remarkable turnround in the political fortunes of Lula, who served two terms as president between 2003 and 2010, but was later jailed as part of the sprawling Lava Jato anti-corruption investigation.
He spent almost two years in prison before his political rights were restored last year after the Supreme Court ruled there were procedural irregularities in the trial.
The former union leader — who referred to himself as the “victim of one of the biggest political persecutions” in Brazil’s history — is the frontrunner to beat Bolsonaro in the October elections, although the far-right populist has begun closing the gap in recent weeks.
Polls suggest between 5 and 15 percentage points now separate the two men.
Following a series of gaffes in recent weeks, Lula largely stuck to his script on Saturday, delivering a familiar message that was critical of Bolsonaro and heavy on nostalgia for his years in power. He did not lay out any detailed plans or policies for what he would do in power, despite growing pressure to do so.
Instead he focused on rebuilding bridges with middle class voters, who he alienated in recent weeks with offhand comments on the campaign trail, as well as women voters, who are generally more hesitant about voting for Bolsonaro.
He also dwelled on protecting Brazil’s sovereignty, which he said meant keeping Petrobras — Latin America’s largest energy company — as well as the country’s numerous government-owned banks, in the state’s hands. Universities needed to be funded and the Amazon rainforest protected from illegal loggers and gold miners, he said.
“Our sovereignty and our democracy have been constantly attacked by the irresponsible and criminal policy of the current government. They threaten, dismantle, scrap, put up for sale our most strategic companies, our oil, our public banks, our environment. They hand over all this extraordinary heritage that does not belong to them, but to the Brazilian people.”
Flanked by his girlfriend, who he is due to marry this month, Lula said he would travel around Brazil to spread his message. He is due to visit Minas Gerais — a large swing state — next week.
“We can expect a focused campaign, presenting what he intends to do to improve people’s lives, to control inflation, to make food accessible to Brazilians again. A campaign that makes people believe in the future of Brazil,” said Rui Costa, the governor of Bahia, who has been tipped to take a ministerial position in a potential third Lula administration.
Despite his popularity when he left the presidency 12 years ago, Lula is today a polarising figure and is deeply disliked by many on the right for the rampant corruption that occurred in Brasília while he was in power.
Both Lula and Bolsonaro are targeting centrist voters. For many such Brazilians, the election will be a question of who they dislike less.
“Our challenge is to look for those who no longer believe in anything and don’t want to vote. We have to awaken the passion, the belief in change,” said Edinho Silva, a mayor from São Paulo who is close to Lula.
As part of this process of winning over the centre — including Brazil’s influential business community — Lula has picked Geraldo Alckmin, a blue blood conservative from São Paulo, as his vice-presidential running mate.
In 2006, the two men contested a bitter presidential race that was marred by mudslinging and accusations of corruption. On Saturday, however, Alckmin was greeted by cheers from Lula’s supporters as he delivered a moderate message aimed at both the left and centre.
“Let’s prove that there is no incompatibility between individual prosperity and a solidary society. Let’s prove that economic efficiency and social justice are not opposites,” he said.
“Nothing, no divergence from the past, no difference from the present, nothing, absolutely nothing, will stop me supporting Lula’s return to the presidency.”