SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil’s embattled former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the front-runner in the country’s election, will be struck from the ballot, an electoral court ruled on Friday, reshaping Brazil’s election one month before voters cast their ballots.
The much-anticipated decision brings some clarity to a chaotic campaign season in which the man who had been favored to win Latin America’s largest election was sitting behind bars.
Lula, who ruled Brazil between 2003 and 2011, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering and corruption in April. Yet, running a campaign largely from his jail cell, he has been able to capture nearly 40 percent of prospective votes for October’s presidential elections, according to the latest polls.
By a vote of 6-1, the Supreme Electoral Court barred Lula from running because it would violate an anti-corruption law that the former president himself signed. The 2010 “Clean Slate” law prevents any candidate who has had a conviction upheld from running for office for eight years. He is the first presidential candidate to be barred from running because of the law.
“We are not deciding at any level, on the former president’s culpability, and much less his political legacy,” said Judge Luis Roberto Barroso, who brought the case to the electoral tribunal for deliberation. The law preventing Lula from running because of his corruption charges is clear, he argued. “There is no margin for the electoral court to make another decision.”
“We have a clearer picture that Lula’s candidacy is doomed,” said David Fleischer, a politics professor at the University of Brasilia. “Today is D-Day. As of today, the Workers’ Party will switch gears into plan B.”
Lula’s Workers’ Party is expected to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court and has until Sept. 17 to replace Lula with another candidate or forfeit the ticket. The party is widely expected to cast Lula’s vice president, Fernando Haddad, as his replacement. But whether Lula can transfer his popularity to a replacement remains to be seen.
Lula, who left the presidency with a record approval rating of 87 percent, consolidated support for his candidacy in the aftermath of his arrest. In April, after a tense, two-day standoff with police, the former president turned himself in to authorities.
He is accused of securing lucrative government contracts for one of the country’s largest construction companies in exchange for a beachfront apartment. His conviction was upheld by an appeals court in January.
Lula has said the case amounts to a right-wing coup to keep him from winning the presidency.
Many see the court decision as a marker in Brazil’s fight against endemic corruption. Lula is the highest-profile figure to be charged in the “carwash” investigation, a sprawling corruption probe that has brought down some of Brazil’s most powerful business executives and politicians over the past five years.
“Brazil’s fight against corruption and impunity constantly suffer attacks and attempts at delegitimization by powerful parties and political disputes,” said Bruno Brandao, head of Transparency International in Brazil. “The best way to protect these efforts is through the strict legality and swift resolution of eventual disputes.”
Last month, a group of United Nations-appointed human rights experts urged Brazilian authorities to allow Lula to run until he exhausts all appeals. He faces seven other corruption cases.
In June, 29 members of the U.S. Congress, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), signed a letter questioning the merits of Lula’s imprisonment. “The fight against corruption must not be used to justify the persecution of political opponents or deny them the opportunity to freely participate in elections,” the lawmakers wrote.
The end of Lula’s candidacy opens the electoral field to runner-up Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman and former soldier whose platform includes gun legalization and weaker environmental regulations.