BRASILIA (Reuters) - The graft conviction Wednesday of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a front-runner for next year's presidential election, opens the door for an outsider to take power in Latin America's largest country, political experts said.
Lula, a giant on the Brazilian political scene who led Brazil from 2003 to 2011, has said he wants to run for president again next year. But if his nearly 10-year sentence is upheld on appeal, Lula, a founder of the leftist Workers Party, would be barred from seeking office again for eight years, beginning after any jail time is complete.
Lula, 71, is among a raft of Brazilian elites toppled by an epic corruption scandal that has battered the nation's economy, engulfed every major party and deepened public cynicism about politics. It's a toxic mix that has enraged voters, who are searching for someone to lead them out of the political and economic wilderness.
"Brazil is now as polarized as the U.S., it really has been for years," said Carlos Melo, a political scientist with Insper, a Sao Paulo business school. "But if Lula is absent it would unquestionably open the space for an outside, very emotional leader, a bit like U.S. President Trump."
Lula was convicted on Wednesday by Judge Sergio Moro, who found Lula guilty of accepting 3.7 million reais ($1.15 million) worth of bribes from engineering firm OAS SA. That is the amount prosecutors said the company spent refurbishing a beach apartment for Lula in return for his help winning contracts with state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro.
OAS was part of a supplier cartel that prosecutors said fleeced billions of dollars from Petrobras through inflated contracts, funneling some of the ill-gotten gains to politicians and political parties. Several OAS executives were jailed by Moro, the hard-charging judge overseeing the so-called Car Wash investigation, the largest-ever corruption probe in Brazil’s history.
Lula' lawyers said he is innocent. He will remain free while his attorneys appeal the ruling, which they have characterized as a political witch hunt. The appeals court is expected to take at least eight months to rule.
"This politically motivated judgment attacks Brazil's rule of law, democracy and Lula's basic human rights," Lula's defense team wrote in an emailed statement. "It is of immense concern to the Brazilian people and to the international community."
Despite his legal woes, the charismatic Lula remains Brazil's best-known politician and has retained a base of loyal supporters. As president, he channeled resources from a commodities boom into social programs that helped lift millions from poverty.
Recent surveys from the respected Datafolha polling institute show that in a second-round runoff next year, Lula would beat all contenders with the exception of the environmentalist and two-time presidential candidate Marina Silva, with whom he is in a technical tie.
But if Lula cannot run, and with roughly 20 percent of the electorate undecided on any candidate, the election is up for grabs.
While Silva has polled well, Melo and other political watchers doubt that the soft-spoken, environmental expert could win, in part because her campaigns have lacked the fiery speeches and dramatic flair needed to engage many voters.
The public's thirst for showmanship and anti-establishment candidates, Melo said, could give a boost to two outsiders: Ciro Gomes, a tough-talking former governor, federal minister and congressmen who is now with the Democratic Workers Party; and Joao Doria, a millionaire media mogul and former star of Brazil's version of "The Apprentice."
Gomes, despite his long career in politics, is a rough-and-tumble politician who could easily position himself as an anti-government candidate. Loud and politically incorrect, Gomes called unpopular President Michel Temer, himself facing a corruption charge, the "captain of the coup" that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff last year.
Doria, who had never held elected office before, stunned the political establishment last year when he won the mayorship of South America's largest city in the first round, capturing 53 percent of the vote. A member of the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party, he is loved by the business community for his pro-market stance. And he has caught the public's attention with stunts such as donning a street sweeper's uniform and spending days cleaning roadways.
Shortly after the Lula verdict was made public Wednesday, Doria posted on Twitter that "Justice has been done."
"The most shameless man in Brazil was condemned to nine and a half years in prison," Doria continued. "Long live Brazil."
The latest Datafolha polls shows Gomes and Doria in a technical tie in a second-round presidential vote next year.
A right-wing, law-and-order candidate, congressman Jair Bolsonaro, of the Social Christian Party, also has polled well, taking 15 percent of a simulated first-round vote in the Datafolha survey, putting him behind only Lula.
But political watchers caution his appeal is likely to wane as opponents dig into his trove of anti-gay, pro-dictatorship utterances. Bolsonaro is facing a trial before Brazil's Supreme Court for inciting violence after he told a female congresswoman on the floor of the lower house that he "would not rape her because she would not be worthy of it."
Sergio Praca, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a leading Brazilian University, said he sees the Lula conviction as giving all politicians a deep scare rather than any one candidate a bounce.
"This conviction is a black mark on Brazil's history. But it is a great moment in the fight against impunity," Praca said.
"The Brazilian voter will no longer accept a presidential candidate who is not clean, and that is a real evolution in our democracy," he added. "In this trying moment, that is the positive outlook we have to hold onto."
($1 = 3.2072 reais)
Editing by Marla Dickerson