In October 2022, Luiz Inacio da Silva defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro to become the next president of Brazil.
Da Silva, known as Lula, narrowly won the acrimonious presidential race after securing 50.9% of the vote in comparison with Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. He was sworn in as president on 1 January 2023.
His victory marked both the latest success story in Latin America’s gradual shift towards left-wing politics, as well as an incredible, personal political comeback for Lula - who previously served as the country’s president between 2003 and 2010. The former union leader-turned politician and founding member of the Brazilian Workers’ Party was well-liked by citizens while in office, but his golden reputation came crashing down when he became the centrepiece of an investigation into government bribes and was ultimately sent to prison.
Despite his convictions later being annulled by Brazil’s Supreme Court, which ruled that the presiding judge had been biased and colluded with prosecutors, Lula is still a controversial figure - and particularly disliked by supporters of far-right Bolsonaro. In fact, Brazil’s Congress was just stormed by thousands of protesters demanding military intervention to either remove the freshly elected leftist Lula or reinstall Bolsonaro.
So it’s looking like Lula won’t have an easy start to his premiership. But who exactly is Luiz Inacio da Silva, what kind of president will he be for Brazil, and why is he controversial? Here’s what you need to know about his personal background, political history, and how he compares to Jair Bolsonaro.
Who is Lula da Silva?
Luiz Inácio da Silva, known nowadays as Lula, was born in 1945, in Caetés, Pernambuco, north-east Brazil.
The 76-year-old has been married three times. In 1969, he married Maria de Lourdes, who died of hepatitis in 1971 while pregnant with their first son, who also sadly died. In 1974, Lula had a daughter, Lurian, with then girlfriend, Miriam Cordeiro. The two were never married, and he reportedly only became part of his daughter’s life when she was already a young adult.
In 1974, Lula married Marisa Letícia Rocco Casa, with whom he then had three sons. He also adopted Marisa’s son from her first marriage, where she was widowed. The two were married for 43 years, until her death on 2 February 2017 after a stroke. He married Rosângela da Silva in 2022.
Growing up, Lula received no formal education. He did not learn to read until he was 10 years old and quit school aged 12 to work and help his family. His first jobs were as a shoe-shiner and street vendor, and by the age of 14, he had a formal job in a warehouse.
How did he get into politics?
The former shoe-shiner and factory worker started his political trajectory when he joined the labour movement and slowly rose through the ranks to be elected (twice) as president of the Steel Workers’ Union of São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema. This was a powerful workers union in one of the most industrialised areas of the country.
He became instrumental in organising strikes and various other union activities, before becoming one of the founding members of the left-wing Workers Party in 1980. Several years later, in 1986, just after the collapse of the military government in Brazil, Lula was elected a member of Congress. He achieved this with the most votes nationwide.
When did he first become president?
Despite the fact that he went on to become one of Brazil’s most popular politicians, he initially had to run three times to become the country’s president. He was eventually elected in 2003.
The new president’s social welfare policies included Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero, which were aimed at combating poverty, fighting against hunger and championing the working class. These ambitious policies came to define Brazil’s political landscape for nearly a decade.
Many also credit Lula with helping Brazil play a bigger role on the international stage, after he involved the country in matters such as climate change and the Iran Nuclear Deal.
What controversies has he been involved with?
Though he was a popular president at the time, Lula’s image and reputation were retrospectively tarnished by a series of scandals relating to corruption and money laundering.
In 2017, despite maintaining that the charges were false, he was convicted of the above offences and sent to jail. His sentence removed him from the 2018 presidential election, in which he was tipped to defeat Bolsonaro.
In 2021, the Brazilian Supreme Court overturned and annulled the charges against Lula due to the trial being presided over by a biased judge - a judge who would go on to become his opponent Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice and Public Security.
What did he say in his leadership campaign?
In an attempt to use his time in prison to his advantage, Lula drew comparisons between himself and Nelson Mandela - the former president of South Africa who served a total of 27 years.
Addressing a crowd of supporters last week, he said: “How did they try to destroy Lula? I spent 580 days in jail because they didn’t want me to run. And I stayed calm there, preparing myself like [Nelson] Mandela prepared for 27 years.”
Outside of this, the focus of Lula’s campaign was getting “Brazil back on track” by improving the “living conditions of the vast majority of the population”. He placed a focus on fighting inflation, which reached 11.73% in May, and often spoke of “fighting environmental crimes”. This includes “defending the Amazon”, ensuring the “protection of the rights of indigenous people” and stopping illegal gold mining.
His green plans, which include a proposal that state-run oil giant Petrobras should work in areas related to environmental and energy transitions, come in stark contrast to his opponent Bolsonaro, who is known by many for being “anti-climate change”.
What did Lula’s victory mean?
Lula became Brazil’s president at a time when the country’s political scene had become increasingly divise and hostile. It is likely that his victory in part benefited from his opponent’s decisive unpopularity, with many Brazilians upset by Bolsonaro’s destructive environmental policies, false statements, and harsh attacks of journalists, health professionals, and political rivals.
But that is not to say the victory is not a significant moment that should prove instrumental in shifting the Brazil’s politics towards leftist ideals and working-class interests. Lula has pledged to eliminate hunger, re-establish relationships with foreign governments, and combat environmental destruction, such as deforestation in the Amazon, which soared under Bolsonaro.
After the results of the vote were announced, he said in a speech at a hotel in downtown Sao Paulo: “Today the only winner is the Brazilian people. It’s the victory of a democratic movement that formed above political parties, personal interests and ideologies so that democracy came out victorious. We did not face an opponent, a candidate. We faced the machine of the Brazilian state put at his service so we could not win the election.”
What problems does he face?
Despite his win in October 2022, Lula has still been a figure of controversy in recent months. For example, the politician sparked outrage when he said that President Zelensky was “as responsible” for the war in Ukraine as Vladimir Putin. In the interview with Time, he also slammed the EU and US, saying Russia’s invasion could have been avoided if they had stated Ukraine would not join Nato.
But his bigger issue nowadays comes from supporters of Bolsonaro, who want him dethroned. Brazil has been on edge in the months following the election, with Bolsonaro stoking belief among his ardent supporters that the electronic voting system was susceptible to fraud, despite the fact that he was never able to provide any evidence to support his claims.
This amounted to the incident on Sunday 8 January, when protesters donning the national flag’s green and yellow invaded Congress and destroyed windows, flipped over furniture and flung laptops and printers to the ground in scenes that resembled the 6 January uprising at the US Capitol in 2021.
Lula has since declared that anyone who supported the so-called “fascist fanatics” and their acts should be punished, and accused Bolsonaro of inciting their insurrection. What will happen next is unclear, but it is unlikely the discontent will end soon.