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Justice or Democracy in Brazil?

Brazilian authorities have banned former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from running for reelection, owing to a corruption conviction. Unfortunately, this strict interpretation of a statute Lula himself signed could open the way for an election result that ultimately subverts the rule of law – and takes democracy down with it.

MEXICO CITY – Brazil’s upcoming presidential election – its ninth since the restoration of democracy in 1985 – will take place against a bleak background, and not just because the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was recently destroyed in a fire, or even because the economic recovery is faltering. With myriad judicial and corruption scandals distorting the electoral process, there is now a growing disconnect between justice and democracy.

The question of which will prevail has already received a partial response. In the wake of the Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) corruption scandal – which, since breaking in 2014, has rocked Brazil’s political class, business sector, and judicial system – former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was convicted of corruption. With his case still under appeal, he now languishes in a prison cell serving a 12-year sentence.

Nonetheless, Lula, who remains Brazil’s most popular politician, wants to run for president. Earlier this month, electoral authorities decided that he could not, because of Brazil’s “clean slate” law – signed by Lula himself during his second term – which prohibits anyone with an upheld conviction for corruption from seeking public office. A large segment of the Brazilian public supported the decision to keep Lula out of the race.