As Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took the stage at the metalworkers’ union where he first made his name, the ex-president of Brazil was in fighting spirit.
“Give up? Never. The words ‘give up’ don’t exist in my dictionary,” said the man known simply as Lula. “I am 75 years old. I say jokingly that I have the energy of a 30 year-old.”
The icon of the Latin American left returned to the forefront of Brazilian politics in dramatic style this week, following a surprise move by a supreme court justice to overturn graft convictions for which he was barred from running for office and served 580 days in prison, before being released in 2019.
While the decision still has to be confirmed by the full supreme court, it has already set the scene for a contest between opposite sides of the political spectrum in next year’s presidential race.
The former trade union organiser has not yet declared if he will stand. But his attack on rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro during a two-and-a-half-hour speech on Wednesday left little doubt that he was back in the fray.
“Bolsonaro knows that he now has a real opponent — a real gladiator in the political arena,” said Hussein Kalout, who served under ex-president Michel Temer.
“[Lula] attacked Bolsonaro in his weakest flanks: the pandemic and economic growth. No political leader has addressed that before with such effectiveness and so emphatically.”
Revered by supporters for bringing millions of people out of extreme poverty with generous welfare policies, Lula rose from humble beginnings to rule Latin America’s biggest country from 2003 to 2010.
Born in the impoverished north-east, he moved as a child with his family to São Paulo state, Brazil’s economic dynamo. In a factory accident Lula lost a finger at the age of 17, before emerging as a strike leader in the 1970s.
Barack Obama once called him “the most popular politician on earth”. But more than a decade after leaving office, the two-term head of state still splits opinion in his nation of 213m people.
Eduardo Mello, professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, described Lula as “the most important political figure in Brazil since the end of the military dictatorship” in 1985.
He was the first democratically elected leftwing president to finish his term and he created the hugely popular Bolsa Família social programme, Mello said. But he was also “a deeply polarising figure” who “refused to build coalitions with centrists in Congress and preferred instead to work with representatives of traditional local elites. To do that, he oversaw the creation of elaborate corruption schemes.”
To critics, Lula ushered in an era of economic mismanagement by his leftwing Workers Party (PT) under whom venality, long a feature of Brazil’s political system, flourished on an industrial scale.
Public sentiment began to shift against the PT after Lula’s departure and his anointed successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016 following mass protests as the country fell into a sharp recession.
Lula’s fall from grace was sealed when he was handed a 12-year sentence after being targeted by the Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption investigation, which implicated scores of politicians and businessmen in a huge kickback scheme.
The convictions for corruption and money laundering were annulled this week on the grounds that the provincial court in southern Brazil that tried the case acted outside its jurisdiction.
At a café near the metalworkers’ union regional headquarters in São Bernardo, in the São Paulo metropolitan area, the leftwinger still commands support.
“Everyone in power is in it for themselves,” said 53-year-old Antônio Vieira de Nascimento. “But Lula was leader for the poor. He was the best president we’ve had.”
A poll published by Atlas this week found 32.7 per cent of those interviewed would opt for Bolsonaro in the first round of presidential elections, against 27.4 per cent for Lula.
“Bolsonaro has benefited politically from a lack of strong, unified opposition on the left, and this could now change,” said Anya Prusa of the Brazil Institute at The Wilson Center in Washington DC.
“However, there are  months between now and the election, and the last few years have shown that Brazilian politics is full of unexpected twists and turns.”
One challenge for the PT is whether its founder’s magnetism can attract a younger generation of voters in a country with an average age of 33.
“Whether him or Bolsonaro, it isn’t going to make much difference,” said Milena Farias, 23, a São Bernardo phone kiosk employee. “The country is close to total collapse in many areas.”
This weariness is widespread among Brazilians, tired of corruption and fatigued by the impact of coronavirus, which has now claimed more than 270,000 lives as a second wave of the outbreak deepens.
Shortly after Lula’s broadside, Bolsonaro appeared to further moderate his stance on Covid-19 by wearing a mask and promoting vaccines, having previously talked down the importance of both.
Some observers believe Lula’s re-emergence could play to the advantage of the former army captain.
“Lula’s return to the political stage would provide a much-welcomed nemesis, and help the president shift the focus away from the catastrophic handling of the pandemic, high unemployment and rising inflation,” said Jimena Blanco, head of Americas research at Verisk Maplecroft, a consultancy.
The events are being watched nervously by Brazil’s business lobby, which backed Bolsonaro in 2018 on the basis of his market-friendly policies and economic reforms — which have so far gone largely unfulfilled. But they also worry that the president may seek to embrace populism to buy votes ahead of the election.
“The markets will be scared of [Lula] due to the view of more public spending, growing debt, less privatisation, more intervention and so on,” said one asset manager.
“[But] the markets are also becoming scared of Bolsonaro as well. It’s like having to choose who is less worse.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice in São Paulo