It was a scene that could have been plucked from Brazil’s history books: an enraptured crowd, a sea of flags and, on stage above them, a bearded leftist in a bright red shirt.
“The president of hope is here!” the master of ceremonies roared as the star of the show arrived in a police convoy to address the people whose country he is promising to save.
As their champion came into view, the throng chanted back a refrain from old times: “Olê, olê, olê, olá, Lula, Lula!”
Virtually identical spectacles played out two decades ago as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva prepared to claim a momentous election victory in 2002 that would make him the first working-class president of one of the world’s most unequal nations.
But this was September 2022 and the factory worker who became a left-wing legend was battling to complete a sensational political comeback that would return him to the presidency at the age of 77.
“Get your new Bermudas ready! Get your new shirts ready! Because on 1 January, I’ll be taking power!” Lula told the thousands of supporters who had come to see him in Nova Iguaçu, a down-at-heel city north of Rio.
With two weeks until an election in which Lula hopes to defeat Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, the leftist is in pole position to achieve that goal – and the mostly black, working class crowd in Nova Iguaçu is desperate for him to succeed.
“Bolsonaro is dragging our country into destitution and we’re counting on Lula to change this,” said Isac de Jesus da Silva, a street hawker who was selling blocks of banana jelly outside Lula’s event beneath a forest of electricity pylons.
“He’s the greatest president Brazil has ever had,” added the 38-year-old, one of an estimated 33 million Brazilians struggling to feed themselves as a result of soaring food prices and a Covid crisis that killed more than 685,000 people and brought economic misery. “My fridge is empty, my friend,” he sighed. “Unfortunately, under Bolsonaro I’m going hungry. We need Lula back in power so we can eat again.”
Nostalgia for Lula’s two-term government, when he used a commodities boom to bankroll social programmes that helped millions escape poverty, has played a leading role in his sixth presidential run.
On the stump in Nova Iguaçu, Lula promised to empower the urban poor as he did from 2003 to 2010, telling his audience: “We abolished slavery in 1888 and we no longer want to be anyone’s slave.”
“We are going to build a compassionate, humane and fraternal country where no mother will go to bed seeing her child go hungry,” he declared, to cheers of delight.
“What would become of us without Lula?” asked Rute Alves, a 60-year-old snack vendor who was there with her family and believed her candidate was set to win outright in the first round on 2 October.
That is a possibility, with two recent polls giving Lula a 12 to 15-point lead over Bolsonaro and suggesting he might secure the 50% of votes that would return him to the presidency without a run-off in late October.
But Bolsonaro, to whom a third of voters remain loyal, is not without support. Many millions of Brazilians view the prospect of a Lula revival with dread after the corruption scandals that blighted his government. Twenty-four hours earlier, the right-wing radical rallied tens of thousands of devotees on Copacabana beach for a show of strength designed to demonstrate he still has a shot at staying in power.
“He’s doing a good job and we do not want Brazil to become communist,” said Fernanda Laranjeira, a 45-year-old lawyer wearing a bright yellow T-shirt stamped with Bolsonaro’s slogan: “Brazil above everything! God above all!”
Would Bolsonaro win? “I want him to win,” Laranjeira said. “If the results are honest, he’ll win. If he doesn’t win, it’s because the vote was rigged.”
Bolsonaro’s relentless questioning of Brazil’s internationally respected electronic voting system – for which he has provided no evidence – has become a key plank of his campaign and fuelled fears he may refuse to step down. Some worry the Donald Trump-admiring former army captain will contest the result, as his US ally did after Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, potentially bringing 6 January-style turmoil to Brazil’s streets.
Bolsonaro has said he will concede if he considers the result “clean and transparent” – yet Brazil’s president has repeatedly suggested it will not be and has dismissed polls showing him trailing Lula as a sham.
Last month more than a million Brazilians signed a manifesto warning that their young democracy faced a moment of “great danger” given Bolsonaro’s admiration for Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship.
Thomas Shannon, the US ambassador to Brazil under Barack Obama, said he doubted Brazil’s armed forces would back an attempt by Bolsonaro to overturn the result by force. “They would be putting their long-term reputation and their long-term relationship with the Brazilian people on the line for a very short-term product.”
Yet the former ambassador did not rule out some key hardline military figures supporting such a rupture to keep Bolsonaro in power. “The question is specific individuals – because individuals can always decide to act in ways that are not in the best interests of an institution but are certainly in their best interests,” Shannon warned.
Alexandre Padilha, a former minister and key member of Lula’s campaign team, said he was hopeful of a first round victory but expected Bolsonaro to challenge the result.
“We have to be prepared for the most preposterous behaviour from Bolsonaro,” he said, pointing to the president’s “outrageous” response to Covid, his destruction of the Amazon and incitement of political violence. “We have to be ready for him to question the election result and bring political instability to the country. We have to be ready for everything.”
Padilha voiced optimism, however, that Lula would prevail and, on day one of his presidency, launch an immediate war on hunger.
Such pledges are music to the ears of people like Isac de Jesus da Silva, who was a teenager when Lula was first elected and is now struggling into middle age. As he waited for the leftist to arrive in Nova Iguaçu, Silva scoffed at Bolsonaro’s efforts to portray himself as “captain of the people”. “Bolsonaro’s the rich man’s president. And the one who’s fighting for the poor – the Robin Hood of the poor – right now is Lula. He’s the only person who cares about those of us who have nothing,” he said.
Silva shrugged off the corruption scandals that saw Lula jailed ahead of the 2018 election that brought Bolsonaro to power. The convictions were quashed last year, paving the way for Lula to write what he hopes will be the final chapter in a storybook four-decade political career.
“Lots of people say Lula stole. I’ve no idea if he did or he didn’t,” Silva said. “But if he did, at least he took from the rich to give to the poor.”