Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has officially launched his campaign for presidential election, calling on people to unite behind him to defeat “the totalitarian threat” without mentioning far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

“We’re ready to work not only to win the election on October 2, but to rebuild and transform Brazil, which will be even more difficult,” the 76-year-old left-wing icon told a rally in Sao Paulo on Saturday , making his political comeback official four years after he was jailed on controversial corruption charges.

“The most serious moment the country is going through forces us to overcome our differences and build an alternative path to the incompetence and authoritarianism that govern us,” the leftist leader said.

“We want to join democrats of all political positions, classes, races and religious beliefs … to defeat the totalitarian threat, the hatred, violence and discrimination hanging over our country,” he said to a cheering crowd.

The 76-year-old left office in 2010 as the most popular president in Brazilian history, after presiding over an economic boom that lifted some 30 million Brazilians from poverty.

While campaigning will start in August, the left-wing icon has been unofficially campaigning since March 2021, when a court annulled the corruption convictions that sidelined him from politics.

“Politics lives in every cell of my body, because I have a cause,” he said two days after the ruling. “In the 12 years since I left office, I see that all the policies I created to benefit the poor have been destroyed.”

A sweeping investigation dubbed “Operation Car Wash” that began in 2014 uncovered an enormous corruption scheme centered on state-run oil company Petrobras. Lula was convicted of multiple bribe-taking and sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison.

The incumbent has narrowed the gap

He started his sentence in April 2018 and was removed from that year’s presidential race, which Bolsonaro won on a wave of outrage against Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT).

The Supreme Court later found bias on the part of the lead judge in the case, Sergio Moro, who went on to become Bolsonaro’s justice minister.

Lula has called the case a conspiracy. He was released pending appeal in November 2019 but was barred from politics until the ruling last year.

Recent opinion polls show Lula maintaining a comfortable advantage over his rival if the election were held today, though Bolsonaro has gained ground by boosting welfare spending and traveling around the country.

Since regaining the status of frontrunner, Lula has made a series of recent gaffes, alienating voters from several key groups with remarks on abortion, the police and the middle class.

He has also looked out of sync with world leaders by saying that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is “as responsible as” Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the Ukraine war.

Bolsonaro, 67, has made it clear he will not leave power without a fight. While at one point Lula looked set to beat Bolsonaro outright in the first-round vote on October 2, without needing a runoff on October 30, the president has narrowed the gap in the latest polls.

Gustavo Ribeiro, a political analyst, says Bolsonaro will do everything he can to catch up with Lula in the polls.

“He will try to use his massive presence on social media in order to make waters murkier to regain ground, especially to voters he lost in the three and half years of presidency,” said Ribeiro, the founder of The Brazilian Report, an online magazine .

“A lot of Brazilians inform themselves on social media – that’s the terrain Bolsonaro dominates – where the left has lost its footing and has struggled to find language and messaging that will resonates with people and engage voters.”

Lula said he has forged a widening alliance of seven left-of-centre parties so far, and has picked centrist former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin for his running mate to draw moderate voters not happy with Bolsonaro’s administration.

He stressed his achievements during his two terms from 2003-2010. “Brazil has returned to the sombre past we thought we had overcome,” he said, mentioning the rise of hunger among poor Brazilians.

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