Brazil: Impeached Ex-President Enters 2018 Campaign Against Leftist Convict Frontrunner

Brazilian Senator and former President (1990-1992) Fernando Collor de Mello gestures during the debate on suspending and impeaching President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia on May 11, 2016. A simple majority in the 81-member Senate will trigger Rousseff's six-month suspension pending trial. A two-thirds majority would then be needed to remove …
EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images
FRANCES MARTEL

Fernando Collor de Mello, the first president of Brazil to be impeached, announced this weekend that he will run for that office again in this year’s presidential elections. He currently serves as a senator representing Alagoas.

Collor will face off against another former president, leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was recently convicted on extensive corruption charges and sentenced to 9.5 years in prison. Lula is the frontrunner, followed by Jair Bolsonaro, a member of Brazil’s lower legislative chamber who is attempting to brand himself as a Trump-esque conservative.

Collor defeated Lula to become president in 1989. Lula won the 2002 presidential election.

Collor resigned before the completion of the impeachment vote against him. He served as Brazil’s youngest president ever and first elected president after an extended period of rule under a military junta. As senator, he voted in favor of impeaching the only president to be removed from office that way without resigning, Lula’s successor and protege Dilma Rousseff.

The 2018 elections will decide who will replace Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice president who took office in 2016 after her impeachment.

“I tell you that this is the among the most important moments of my life as a person and as a public man,” Collor said during a speech announcing his candidacy in Alagoas on Friday. “Today, my choice was made. I am, yes, a pre-candidate for the presidency of the Republic.”

Brazilians use the term “pre-candidate” for those seeking a spot on the ultimate ballot. The nation uses a two-ballot system in which the top two vote-getters in the first round of voting move on to a run-off election that ultimately determines the winner.

Collor explained in an interview following his announcement on Friday that he feels he has an advantage in the race despite his poor record as president in the past.

“I have an advantage in relation to other candidates because I already presided over my country, everybody knows my party, they know the way I think and act to achieve the goals the public wants to improve their quality of life,” he told Gazeta de Arapiraca radio (which he owns). He added that he believes there is a “vacuum” in the current presidential choices, as the other two candidates represent the “extreme right” and “extreme left.”

Collor is a member of the conservative Christian Labor Party (PTC). The Brazilian magazine Veja notes that the PTC has largely fallen from grace, boasting no representation in the lower chamber of the legislature and Collor as its only senator.

While Collor may be accurate in assessing the state of the presidential race, being a centrist will do little to assuage concerns that he himself is corrupt. He was impeached as president after evidence surfaced suggesting he had embezzled over 6.5 million dollars while in office. Unlike Rousseff, he resigned immediately, turning the corruption probe into a private affair. He was absolved of the accusations in 1994 and ultimately re-entered politics, insisting he had committed no crimes and becoming a senator in 2006.

Now that he is a presidential candidate again, Brazilian media have uncovered new corruption allegations. The newspaper O Globo reported on Monday that the nation’s Supreme Court has evidence roping Collor into the sprawling “Operation Car Wash” corruption scandal. O Globo claims the investigation into corruption at the state-run oil corporation Petrobras revealed that Collor and his allies may have received “more than $ 29 million in kickbacks between 2010 and 2014, as a result of fuel exchange flag contracts with BR Distribuidora,” a contractor.

Collor has denied the charges.

While the courts may be investigating Collor, they have already convicted Lula da Silva.

Lula was convicted and sentenced to 9.5 years in prison in July 2017 for his role in “Operation Car Wash,” in which courts found pervasive misuse of Petrobras. Politicians would offer private contractors lucrative infrastructure projects at exorbitant prices in exchange for kickbacks—both the politicians and the contractors got rich off of taxpayers’ dollars.

Lula was convicted of diverting at least $26 million in Petrobras funds.

The next day, he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the nation again.

“Whoever thinks this is the end of Lula will have egg on their face,” Lula said at his announcement event. “In politics, the only ones who have the right to decree my end are the Brazilian people. … If someone thinks that, with that conviction, they got me out of the game, they can know that I’m in the game!”

It is not clear how Lula would serve as president if his conviction is upheld. He is fighting the conviction on appeal and has said he is confident it will be overturned.

This leaves Jair Bolsonaro as the only candidate not facing major charges of corruption. Bolsonaro brings his own baggage to the election, however, most famously his declaration that fellow legislator Maria do Rosário of Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) was “ugly” and that he would “rape you because you do not deserve it.” Bolsonaro is facing charges of “inciting violence” for that comment.

Bolsonaro, a military veteran, has also repeatedly supported military dictatorships, stating on television that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet “did what had to be done” and, when addressing anti-government protesters, telling them that the error of Brazil’s military dictatorship “was to torture and not kill.” In a 2011 article in Folha de Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro also referred to the Brazilian military junta’s rule as “20 years of order and progress,” a reference to the slogan on the Brazilian flag. As a soldier, the Brazilian magazine Veja claimed in 1987 that he had planned to bomb barracks in Rio de Janeiro (Bolsonaro contests this, noting on his website that he was absolved of the charges and only accused after publicly protesting low wages for soldiers).

Bolsonaro is currently running on what he insists are similarities between him and U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Trump faced the same attacks I am facing—that he was a homophobe, a fascist, a racist, a Nazi—but the people believed in his platform, and I was rooting for him,” Bolsonaro told Reuters. While some, particularly in leftist media, have bought this claim, Bolsonaro’s lack of an economic policy core and emphasis on “the fight against the eroticization of children in schools” makes for a significantly different message from Trump’s winning “Make America Great Again” campaign.

The Argentine newspaper La Nación noted on January 9 that polls show Lula leading with 35 percent of the vote, with Bolsonaro at 17 percent and the rest undecided. Polls have yet to come out at press time including Collor among the candidates.

Brazilians go to the polls in October.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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