Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 | 1:02 a.m.
SAO PAULO — He is facing several corruption charges, Brazil's largest-ever graft probe has decimated the political party he founded and his hand-picked successor was impeached and ousted from office.
Yet former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known to Brazilians simply as Lula, is topping polls for next year's presidential race and traveling the country to make the case that he can bring the boom times back to Latin America's largest nation.
"Lula has the 'I can make Brazil great again'" angle, said Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, based in Washington.
The political return of Silva seems as inevitable to Brazilians as it is strange to outsiders. Despite the charges against him, the charismatic ex-president remains a larger-than-life figure here: a folksy former union leader and workingman who fought for democracy during the country's dictatorship and then oversaw its rise to economic global power. His time in office, from 2003 to 2010, coincided with Brazil's unprecedented boom, and he is revered by many for using those gains to pull millions out of poverty.
Perhaps just as importantly, recent political turmoil and the graft probe have left few other viable candidates on the left.
Still, the charges against him cast a shadow over a possible comeback. He left office with an 87-percent approval rating, but a Datafolha survey in December showed him leading a crowded field of presidential hopefuls with just 25 percent support.
In five separate cases, Silva has been charged with crimes including accepting kickbacks or bribes, peddling influence and obstructing justice.
Before a conviction, it would be politically untenable to try to block Silva's candidacy, said Sergio Praca, a political scientist at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Rio de Janeiro. Silva has dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated and if they interfered with his candidacy, he would have even more ammunition to call foul, Praca said.
Even if convicted, Silva might only receive a slap on the wrist, said de Bolle, who is also a professor at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.
"Brazil has these supposedly very strict laws about who can run for president," she said. "But, of course, Brazil also has a history of waving things off when they want to wave things off."
Uncertainty about Silva's candidacy, Praca said, is emblematic of a broader instability in Brazilian politics, where the fates of dozens of politicians remain unclear because of corruption cases against them and the looming threat that more could be ensnared.
That instability isn't just making elections hard to predict. It weighs on Brazil's economy just as the government is hoping reforms will stem a deep recession.
While touring the country in recent weeks, Silva has been hammering away at President Michel Temer, who came to power after Silva's successor, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office last year for illegally managing the federal budget. Many on the left call her impeachment a "coup," and Silva has said Temer does not have the legitimacy to carry out deep economic reforms, which the former president claims will increase inequality and poverty.
"Those who staged the coup, they didn't do it to build something new," Silva told an education union conference in January. "They staged the coup to destroy what we built."
That rhetoric will play well with Workers' Party faithful, but there are fewer of those these days. Prosecutors allege that while Silva was in office, many politicians were in cahoots with businessmen to inflate contracts with state-run companies and then divert the billions of extra dollars to pay for election campaigns or personal extravagances.
While the Datafolha poll indicated Silva was likely to win a first round of voting, he trailed in a potential runoff against former Environment Minister Marina Silva, with 34 percent to her 43 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Recently, Silva received an outpouring of sympathy when his wife had a stroke and died after being hospitalized. Even his rival Temer visited the hospital.
Silva didn't shy away from turning her wake into a political event, calling the prosecutors who brought charges against her "criminals" and declaring he wasn't afraid of arrest.
In the coming months, Silva will likely couple that defiance with efforts to tap into a yearning for better days.
His two terms in office coincided with a global commodities boom, and Brazil's gross domestic product more than quadrupled. While he is not exclusively responsible for that phenomenal economic rise, he is credited with sharing the gains among Brazil's lower classes. Inequality, which was already falling when he was elected, plummeted on his watch through programs like the Family Grant, which gives poor households money for food, school and health expenses.
Those policies have earned him unshakable support in some sectors. Paulo Roberto Antonio Teixeira, a 50-year-old gas station attendant in Sao Paulo, said he remains a staunch supporter of the Workers' Party.
"He was a good president," said Teixeira, who shrugged when asked about Silva's legal troubles.