SAO PAULO (AP) – As Brazilâ€™s largest leftist party gathers to plan the future, a figure that has dominated its past looms ever larger.
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the unquestioned star of the party conference starting Friday in Sao Paulo, and many still think he could be the partyâ€™s standard-bearer once again in 2022 – when heâ€™ll be a 77-year-old cancer survivor who is currently barred from seeking office due to a corruption conviction.
Da Silva, who governed Brazil between 2003 and 2010, is fresh out of jail after 19 months in a cell. He could return to jail if he loses his last appeals in Brazilâ€™s top court, but there is no date for those decisions to be made.
The thousands of his supporters who came to Sao Pauloâ€™s Casa de Portugal on a rainy evening are convinced the former presidentâ€™s conviction was unfair, and so will be any convictions in other charges.
â€œIf it were not for his release, there wouldnâ€™t be much in this congress,â€ said former Workersâ€™ Party chairman Rui FalcÃ£o.
Most analysts see da Silva more as a potential kingmaker and strategist for the party he was instrumental in transforming. One of them is former chief-of-staff and senator, Jaques Wagner.
â€œDonâ€™t expect narrow-minded politics to come from his head. Radicalism is not in his spirit,â€ Wagner told The Associated Press. He believes da Silva should open the way for a new generation of politicians from Brazilâ€™s Northeast to take center stage in the next presidential election.
But Raul Pont, a member of the Workers’ Party and former mayor of Porto Alegre, thinks it is â€œtoo soonâ€ to rule da Silva out of the presidential ticket.
â€œWhat he will start doing now is organizing a progressive movement, one that goes beyond our party. Then we will see, in case he is eligible,â€ he said.
The former union leader took a party some politicians long regarded as a radical fringe and brought it to power in 2003, winning adulation from millions for presiding over more than a decade of prosperity and reduced poverty with policies that were far more business-friendly than many foes had feared.
That record was increasingly stained by corruption scandals that finally snared da Silva himself, and the 80% approval ratings he enjoyed on leaving office in 2010 have slipped to about 40% today – even so better than that of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Still, many on the left still see him as the only politician who can today organize the opposition to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who last year ended the Workersâ€™ Party string of victory in four consecutive elections.
The left came out weakened from the last election, and Bolsonaro, a former army captain who much like U.S. President Donald Trump has broken free from conventional ways of governing, has further destabilized the opposition, some analysts believe.
Others argue the opposition has remained quieter than expected because the Bolsonaro administration is often proving to be its own worst enemy.
The Workersâ€™ Party remains the biggest party in the lower house, with 54 seats. But even under da Silva, it required alliances with smaller parties to govern – parties that eventually proved unreliable allies.
Da Silvaâ€™s Workersâ€™ Party successor, Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 when former coalition members turned against her. And the Workersâ€™ Party candidate in the last election, Fernando Haddad, lost with less than 45 percent of the vote.
Political analyst FÃ¡bio Kerche, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro state, said da Silva has already sent signals he would try to reach beyond the party, to the center and center right, possibly building a broader democratic front against Bolsonaro.
He noted that da Silva has shown the ability to attract a broad range of political allies and voters alike, and said, â€œOnce again, this will be his mission.â€
During his two mandates, da Silva managed to implement a program heavily focused on fighting extreme poverty, without radicalizing his administration or alienating the business sector, Kerche said.
Following his release from jail earlier this month, da Silva gathered thousands of supporters outside the Sao Paulo union that he once led and that later served as the base for his political career. He was accompanied by former presidential candidate Fernando Haddad.
Da Silva is expected to reach out to other political parties such as the Brazilian Socialist Party.
â€œI see him as an irreplaceable organizer of a leftist front that goes beyond elections, that has an agenda for Brazilâ€™s society,â€ said Pont.
But many wonder how much control the former leader is willing to let go. Da Silva is hoping the Supreme Court will deliver a ruling that could cancel the cases in which he is accused of corruption and money laundering – and such a ruling would legally open the path to another presidential run.
Both Rousseff and Haddad lacked the charismatic populist spark that helped da Silva electrify audiences.
Brazil, like much of Latin America, has struggled to shake off a certain cult of personality.
â€œUnfortunately, right or left, personalities have a greater appeal than institutions,â€ Melo said.
Diane Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro