CURITIBA, Brazil (AP) — Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva walked out of prison on Friday, injecting new energy into a weakened opposition. His exit drew cheers from supporters who had gathered to celebrate the release of the man who rose from poverty to lead the country through an economic boom.
Hundreds of red-shirted Brazilians applauded the popular, 74-year-old politician as he walked out of the federal police building in the southern city of Curitiba. His release came less than a day after the Supreme Court ruled that a person can be imprisoned only after all the appeals have been exhausted.
Da Silva, who is appealing his conviction of corruption and money laundering in connection with the purchase of a beachfront apartment in Sao Paulo state, embraced his daughter, raised his fist to the sky and made his way onto a stage surrounded by his girlfriend and others.
"You have no idea the dimension of the significance of me being here with you," Da Silva told jubilant supporters, thanking individual union leaders and members of his leftist Workers' Party, known as PT. "They didn't arrest a man. They tried to detain an idea. An idea doesn't disappear."
Da Silva, who is universally known as Lula, has been imprisoned since April 2018. His release will likely reinvigorate an opposition weakened by corruption scandals, the impeachment of Da Silva's hand-picked successor, Da Silva's imprisonment and, more recently, a clobbering in the 2018 general elections. But it's not clear what political role he will seek now that he is free.
While he is barred from office as his appeals run their course, the former leader of the Workers' Party remains a popular figure on the left. Still, he could find himself back in jail if his appeals don't go his way.
His release also could anger right-leaning Brazilians who had viewed his imprisonment as proof Brazil was finally serious about putting an end to impunity. Lula's 2018 jailing drove the two sides of Brazil's already-polarized society even further apart, and his release is set to reignite tensions.
In addition to promising to root out corruption and curb violence, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro ran a strong campaign on anti-Workers Party sentiment. He won the election with 55% of the vote and was sworn in on Jan. 1.
Da Silva, who governed from 2003 to 2010 had been favored to win the 2018 presidential election, but his conviction eventually prohibited him from running.
The former president has said that when free, he would travel around the country rallying opposition. Political analysts say he might not immediately enter into a direct confrontation with Bolsonaro, seeking instead to influence the next presidential election in 2022.
"The thing that makes Lula most dangerous to Bolsonaro is that Lula understands the long game," said James Bosworth, founder of Hxagon, a political risk analysis firm, stressing that the politician had run four times before being first elected in 2003.
"Lula is an old school union and political organizers who is going to take his time placing PT and other allies into positions to take advantage of Bolsonaro's weaknesses in the coming years," he said.
The former union leader is widely referred to as a "political animal". He presided over a period of rapid growth fueled by a commodities boom that expanded the country's middle class. His huge Bolsa Familia welfare program helped lift millions from poverty, and he left office with an approval rating above 80%. His impassioned oratory can just as easily elicit laughter or tears from those among his supporters.
For Claudio Couto, a professor in political science at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Sao Paulo, Da Silva's release will have profound consequences on both sides of Brazil's political spectrum.
On the one hand, it will serve Bolsonaro's anti-PT and anti-Lula rhetoric, Couto said. "On the other hand, it ends the PT's 'Free Lula' rhetoric, and forces the party to take on another agenda."
Left-leaning supporters hailed the release of their standard-bearer, but want more and are now advocating for his name to be cleared.
While he is out of jail, the former leader remains entangled in several court cases.
Aside from the beachfront apartment, he was also sentenced by a lower court judge in a case centered around ownership of a farmhouse in Atibaia, outside Sao Paulo. If he loses his appeals in either conviction, he could find himself imprisoned once again.
Da Silva has denied any wrongdoing and accuses Car Wash prosecutors and then-judge Sergio Moro, now Justice Minister, of political persecution.
In a separate Supreme Court debate, justices will decide whether Moro was biased when he delivered his rulings. Protests supporting Moro and his anti-corruption crusade have been scheduled this weekend in major Brazilian cities.
Sitting beside his girlfriend in the backseat of a car driving him away from the prison where he spent the last 19 months, Da Silva reassured his supporters in a brief Facebook live: "I'm going to work for the rest of my life to repay you, with gratitude, with love, with work."
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.