São Bernardo do Campo (Brazil) (AFP) – Brazil’s election frontrunner and controversial leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Saturday finally walked out of the building where he had been holed up for two days and attended a Catholic Mass ahead of his expected arrest for corruption.
Lula, 72, got a rock star’s welcome from thousands of leftist supporters surrounding the metalworkers’ union building in Sao Bernardo do Campo, where he has defied the authorities.
He had been ordered to surrender on Friday and begin a 12-year sentence. But to the delight of his fervent followers, Lula skipped the deadline, remaining shut up in the building.
The unfolding drama mixes Lula’s charismatic political style, the country’s epic struggle against graft, and the fate of October’s presidential elections — where, despite his legal problems, Lula remains by far the most popular contender.
Finally emerging Saturday, wearing a dark blue T-shirt and looking confident, Lula waved to the crowd and made the sign of the cross on a platform where he stood next to several priests.
“Free Lula, free Lula!” the crowd chanted.
The impromptu Mass in the street was to commemorate Lula’s late wife Marisa Leticia, who died last year and would now be turning 68.
But it was also a reminder to supporters of Lula’s long and often emotional backstory, rising as he did from humble beginnings as an uneducated, desperately poor shoeshine boy to a two-term president (2003-2010), and at his peak, one of the world’s most popular politicians.
For his followers, the Mass appeared likely to become an elaborate farewell before Lula was taken to Curitiba, headquarters of Brazil’s giant “Car Wash” anti-graft probe, which has claimed him as its biggest scalp.
– Prayers, then negotiations –
Lula was convicted last year of taking a luxury apartment as a kickback from a big construction company. He lost a lower court appeal in January and saw his sentence increased from nine to 12 years.
Since Wednesday, Lula and his supporters have been fighting the prison sentence in the Supreme Court, Brazil’s top appeals court, and in the streets, in a feverish political drama that has gripped Latin America’s biggest nation.
On Friday, the founder of the once dominant Workers’ Party refused to comply with an order to surrender voluntarily to the authorities.
This raised fears of confrontation between police and the seething crowd of Lula backers, many of them in Workers’ Party red shirts. However, authorities quickly defused tension by declaring that Lula was not yet considered a fugitive.
The endgame now appears to have started.
Brazilian media widely reported that Lula was due to turn himself in after the Mass.
Lula’s lawyers were in negotiations with police over the place and timing of the arrest, allies of the disgraced leader told AFP.
But Lula’s faithful were still in defiant mood.
“We can’t let them lock up Lula!” one member of the human shield surrounding the union building yelled. “Don’t let him surrender!” another cried.
Meanwhile, Lula’s lawyers appealed for an injunction against his arrest late Friday in the Supreme Court. But a similar appeal at another court failed earlier in the day and the latest effort was unlikely to gain traction.
– Polarizing figure –
To his Workers’ Party faithful, Lula is a victim of an out-of-control judiciary preventing him from returning to power.
They remember him for a presidency that saw tens of millions lifted from poverty and Brazil rise on the world stage.
However, Lula’s imminent arrest is being celebrated by many Brazilians.
The “Car Wash” probe, which has revealed systemic, high-level embezzlement and bribery throughout business and politics over the last four years, is wildly popular.
Detractors say that Lula epitomizes Brazil’s corruption-riddled elite.
Operation “Car Wash” was named after the service station where agents initially investigated a minor money laundering scheme in 2014, before realizing that they had stumbled on a gargantuan web of embezzlement and bribery at state oil company Petrobras, reaching right through the political classes.