In a speech Wednesday that signaled a potential presidential run, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva condemned Jair Bolsonaro, the South American country's current far-right president, for his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.
"This country is disorganized and falling apart because it has no government," Lula told a crowd gathered at the metalworkers union in São Bernardo do Campo, where the 75-year-old left-wing icon's political career began as an organizer in the 1970s.
While Covid-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 270,000 people in Brazil—the world's second-highest death toll over the past year, after the United States—Bolsonaro has consistently minimized the lethal threat posed by the virus.
Last week, after two consecutive days of record deaths that have pushed the country's hospital system "to the brink of collapse," Brazil's president told his citizens to stop "whining," which Reuters called Bolsonaro's "latest remarks attacking distancing measures and downplaying the gravity of the pandemic."
Standing in front of a banner that read, "Health, jobs, and justice for Brazil," Lula, a member of the Workers' Party, said Wednesday that "many of these deaths could have been avoided."
Lula also told the audience: "Do not follow a single one of the president or health minister's moronic decisions. Get vaccinated."
"The people don't need arms. The people need jobs," Lula said, criticizing Bolsonaro's pro-gun policy as well as his inept response to the ongoing economic turmoil, which the former president contrasted with the increased prosperity and reduced inequality that Brazilians experienced when he governed the country from 2003 until 2011.
The speech was Lula's first since a Brazilian Supreme Court justice on Monday overturned several criminal convictions against the former president, restoring his political rights and opening the door for a 2022 bid to unseat Bolsonaro.
Though Lula said he "doesn't have time to think about a 2022 candidacy now," some observers interpreted his vow to "fight tirelessly" for Brazil and denunciation of Bolsonaro as evidence of his official return to the political arena, with Reuters characterizing the event as an attempt to "set the stage" for a likely presidential run.
"His speech was a campaign launch" in effect, said political analyst Creomar da Souza of the consulting firm Dharma. "He presented his project for the country, which involves a lot of references to his legacy as president."
During his presidency, Lula oversaw an economic boom, which he channeled to improve the lives of downtrodden Brazilians. He remains popular with progressives throughout the world for implementing social programs that lifted millions out of poverty.
As President, Lula did incredible work to lower poverty in Brazil and to stand up for workers. It is great news that his highly suspect conviction has been annulled. This is an important victory for democracy and justice in Brazil. https://t.co/PPKmLMfinp
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 9, 2021
When he left office in 2011, Lula enjoyed approval ratings over 80%, and before his candidacy was derailed by a corruption conviction, he was leading the polls during the 2018 race eventually won by Bolsonaro.
Lula has maintained his innocence, describing the charges that put him behind bars for 18 months as a lie fabricated by right-wing adversaries intent on perpetrating a political coup.
While Lula could still be tried in the capital Brasília if prosecutors there decide to pursue one of the pending corruption cases, in which no verdicts have yet been reached, the former president remains popular.
Recent polling data indicates that he is in the best position to defeat the right-wing incumbent.
"Bolsonaro represents rock bottom in the recent history of the republic," said Christian Lynch, a political scientist from Rio de Janeiro's State University. "And he's going to have to face the candidate who was its zenith."