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Lula da Silva is in jail — and he’s still Brazil’s leading candidate for president. Here are 3 ways that could turn out.

- April 16, 2018

Former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva is the front-runner in Brazil’s coming presidential election, scheduled for Oct. 7, 2018. But instead of being on the campaign trail, he is in jail, charged with corruption-related crimes. He’s expected to stay in prison while all his legal appeals are considered, which could take months — which means he may still be in jail when Brazilians vote.

Usually, a candidate behind bars means the game is over, both legally and politically. Here are three possible ways for da Silva to stay in contention this fall.

1) The former president doubles down on his candidacy.

At this writing, da Silva has emphatically insisted that he remains a candidate. His party — the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) — has backed him; for PT, there is only one candidate — da Silva.

Da Silva has been found guilty in one case, which is on appeal, and is a defendant in five other corruption-related cases, but that does not immediately disqualify him from being a presidential candidate. Until July 20, the former president and all others seeking the presidency are technically only potential candidates; Aug. 15 is the last date that candidacies can be made official. The Brazilian Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral, or TSE) has until Sept. 17 to analyze all candidacy bids. Until its ruling, which could wait until that date, da Silva can officially campaign, even if only through audio and video. If the TSE denies the former president’s request to be on the ballot, he will most likely appeal the decision.

So far, even after his imprisonment, a recent poll indicated that 50 percent of those interviewed believe he should be allowed to run. His current criminal case is still on appeal, and his conviction could be overturned. The biggest problem with this scenario is that even if da Silva runs and wins, if the appeals are ultimately denied — and it’s unlikely that he’ll win the several legal decisions ahead of him — all votes for him will be nullified.

That means that even if da Silva wins in October, he’s unlikely to be able to take office on Jan. 1. For the same reason, even if he were to take office, the odds of him being able to serve a full term appear to be even slimmer.

2) The former president supports someone from his party.

Given da Silva’s unstable legal prospects, he might give up his candidacy and actively support someone else. In a poll held in early March, respondents were asked what they would do if da Silva could not run for the presidency. A poll released April 15, just a week after his imprisonment, showed that two-thirds of his voters would vote for whomever he indicated. As the leading candidate with a highly loyal voter base, da Silva’s support would have enormous weight.

Some names have been appearing in the media as possible PT candidates, such as Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, and Jaques Wagner, former governor of Bahia. The latter has said he only supports “Plan L,” meaning Lula. Given the party’s official stance, PT delegates’ discussions over these and other names have been very discreet.

The main problem with this scenario is that — so far — no other name within the PT appears strong on its own. An enormous number of da Silva supporters would have to be willing to shift to da Silva’s appointed successor for him or her to be able to compete even with any of the other left-leaning pre-candidates.

3) The former president supports a left-leaning candidate from another party.

Many PT members worry that if there’s an unappealing PT candidate, the pro-da Silva votes could fragment among all the others on the left. The result might be that no leftist candidate makes it to the second round of voting.

A handful of left-leaning possible candidates’ names have been floating around. These possibilities include some staunchly leftist contenders — like congresswoman Manuela D’Avila (Communist Party of Brazil, or PC do B) and Guilherme Boulos (national coordinator for the Homeless Workers’ Movement, or MTST). Others mentioned include some center-left names, like Marina Silva, who reached third place in the 2014 election, and Ciro Gomes, former finance minister. The last two appear to have bigger chances of appealing to a broader electoral base than first two. But the former president’s support could have a weighty effect on any candidacy.

One advantage of this last approach is that it could weaken right-wing candidates. For instance, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing candidate from a fringe party behind only da Silva in polls, has been spewing anti-da Silva and anti-PT rhetoric.

But backing a non-PT candidate has little else to recommend it. While it could produce a strong left-leaning contender, da Silva and his party will keep in mind that PT would have only a supporting role in such a government. They would not be making the big decisions themselves. In fact, they may not even agree with the politics of the candidate who finally takes office.

Of course, the election is many months away. A lot could happen between now and October. Other candidates might emerge — or submerge — and alter any early predictions. Da Silva could be released, acquitted or convicted in other investigations.

Whatever happens, da Silva — in jail or out — remains an active force in Brazil’s presidential election. This is Brazilian politics, and it is not for beginners.

Déborah B.L. Farias will be a lecturer at the University of New South Wales beginning July 2018.