| SAO PAULO/BRASILIA
SAO PAULO/BRASILIA Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's combative testimony before a federal judge this week did little to dismantle the graft case against him and improve his chances of securing a new term in office.
Lula, a founder of the leftist Workers Party (PT) that controlled Brazil's presidency from 2003 until last year, can only run in next year's presidential election if he avoids a conviction that is upheld on appeal.
Steady questioning by crusading Judge Sergio Moro on Wednesday uncovered no bombshell revelations to shake supporters' steadfast belief that Lula is innocent and the victim of a political witch hunt. Nor did it do much to knock down corruption charges that stand between Lula and a third shot at the presidency.
"Lula left the courtroom the same size as he went in. His testimony will not legally save the former president," said the centrist Green Party congressman Alvaro Dias.
"But politically, there was a repercussion that both fuels the PT's followers and enrages his opponents, as he tried to transform a legal procedure into a political show."
In recent polling, Lula sits atop surveys of potential candidates for the 2018 election but he also has the highest rejection rate, showing strong opposition to him among many Brazilians.
Lula's case is part of an investigation known as "Operation Car Wash" which unearthed how Brazilian construction firms paid billions in political kickbacks and bribes in return for contracts at state-run oil company Petrobras (PETR4.SA) and other government-controlled companies.
The investigation has seen more than 90 prominent businessmen and politicians convicted. Scores of sitting federal congressmen across the political spectrum as well as one-third of conservative President Michel Temer's cabinet are being investigated.
Prosecutors allege Lula was given a beach apartment by construction firm OAS [OAS.UL] in exchange for helping it win lucrative government contracts.
"DEAD OR ALIVE"
Lula portrayed himself during his testimony as a victim of a vengeful, elitist media that wanted to get him "dead or alive." He also said Brazil's upper class could not stomach his social welfare programs that helped lift millions out of poverty during his eight years in office.
Still beloved by many working class Brazilians, Lula stepped down in 2011 with an 83-percent approval rating.
A former union leader who led strikes in the early 1980s that helped dismantle a two-decade military dictatorship, Lula rose from poverty to the presidency on the back of his ability to electrify crowds at campaign rallies.
He convinced Brazil's legion of poor voters that one of their own could finally rule the continent-sized country.
Moro deployed calm, persistent questioning to prevent the ex president from using his oratory skills to piece together a convincing, coherent explanation of the accusations against him.
Moro consistently interrupted to rein in Lula when his testimony veered toward what the judge labelled political stumping.
"If Lula's supporters hoped to turn May 10, 2017, into a landmark in his quest to return to the presidential palace, the repeated doubts in his testimony and the lack of an overwhelming street demonstration by supporters clouded that ambition," wrote Igor Gielow, a political analyst for the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, Brazil's largest.
The uncertainty of Lula's fate as he faces five corruption trials, and the political polarization that has encompassed Brazil, demonstrate how the country's institutions have matured, said Carlos Pereira, a professor of public administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
"It's a historic moment that a Brazilian president is on trial at all, it shows the degree to which our system of checks and balances has strengthened," he said.
Pereira noted that corruption has been endemic in Brazil for hundreds of years and leaders had acted with impunity until recently. But the autonomy given to investigators and courts in the 1988 constitution as the nation emerged from dictatorship paved the way to end that.
"Politicians held great sway over the judicial system, but now they are under its thumb. That is a new twist in Brazil," he said. "It is amazing, ironic and astonishing for an emerging democracy."
(Reporting by Brad Brooks and Anthony Boadle; Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Hay)