On Saturday, the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, surrendered to the federal police to start a 12-year one-month prison sentence for corruption. Judge Sergio Moro had ordered Mr. da Silva to turn himself in to the police by 5 p.m. on Friday. But before doing so, Mr. da Silva had laid down a few rules of his own.
He would surrender only after attending an ecumenical service in honor of the birthday of his deceased wife, Marisa Letícia. Flanked by his political allies, among them two other presidential candidates, Mr. da Silva celebrated his wife at the same union headquarters where he first met her in 1973 and where he mourned her death last year.
Up until the minute before his surrender and subsequent transfer to the prison in the southern city of Curitiba, Mr. da Silva played politics, spending much of the day lecturing from his campaign bus and using the media attention to reiterate that jailing the country’s favorite candidate in the October elections would only further weaken Brazil’s democracy.
“This will not be the end of me,” he said to a throng of supporters. “I am no longer a human being. I am an idea. An idea that is mixed with all of your ideas.” Many in the crowd responded, “Don’t surrender!” The police transport vehicle tried to leave the scene twice, but the former president’s followers blocked the way.
Mr. da Silva’s conviction and imprisonment have further inflamed Brazil’s political crisis. And in a nation that escaped the grip of dictatorship only in 1985, it is unclear whether democracy will survive or whether supporters of authoritarian government will gain the upper hand.
On April 4, the day before the Federal Supreme Court rejected Mr. da Silva’s habeas corpus appeal, the commander of the Brazilian Army, Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas, summoned the ghost of the dictatorship when he announced on Twitter that the military, “along with all good citizens, repudiates impunity and respects the Constitution, civic peace and democracy.” The message was widely interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the court into convicting Mr. da Silva. Another general, Luiz Gonzaga Schroeder, went even further, stating in an interview that if Mr. da Silva were elected again, it would be “the duty of the armed forces to restore order.”
Both generals believe that Mr. da Silva’s presidential bid is an affront to the war against corruption, known here as Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), a far-reaching campaign started in 2014 that has uncovered a network of graft and corruption in the public service, shaking the political class. And so, while Mr. da Silva’s imprisonment is a very visible high point of this investigation, it doesn’t mean the end of Brazil’s political crisis — if anything, it marks the start of some very intense uncertainty in the months leading up to the election.
Mr. da Silva remains at the top of the opinion polls among would-be voters, and he can still continue to appeal his sentence and become the official Workers’ Party candidate in the October elections. Alternatively, he could run his campaign from prison as long as the electoral courts don’t disqualify him by invoking the Clean Slate law, which bars those convicted of criminal offenses from seeking public office.
If things don’t go well for Mr. da Silva, the biggest loser will be the Brazilian left, which has been looking to him as its anchor and promise. With the left in disarray — its reputation is tarnished, its members divided, and it has no other strong presidential candidate — Brazil could well follow the recent trend in other Latin American countries, where right-wing parties that stubbornly refuse to cut ties with their former dictatorships are now on the rise, enjoying the support of the growing evangelical Christian communities, as is the case in Chile.
Does democracy have anything to gain with Mr. da Silva’s imprisonment? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that the one person who stands to gain from his downfall is Jair Bolsonaro, the retired military officer and presidential candidate who is No. 2 in the polls. Mr. Bolsonaro was among the first to publicly endorse General Boas’s remark about corruption, yet another cause for concern among many Brazilians already troubled by Mr. Bolsonaro’s repeated praise for the former chief of Brazil’s dictatorship-era torture center.
Meanwhile, political radicalization and violence are on the rise. On March 29, as Mr. da Silva traveled through the state of Paraná in southern Brazil on his campaign to defend his name, shots were fired at his convoy. After his habeas corpus plea was rejected, a man who yelled insults at Mr. da Silva in front of a school was hospitalized with brain trauma after a Workers’ Party activist jostled him and his head was struck by a passing truck. Protesting Mr. da Silva’s arrest, the Landless Workers’ Movement blocked roads in 11 states. Several journalists were attacked while trying to cover his arrest on Saturday.
For the moment, the army’s resurgence suggests that when the government loses political control, the desire for political power is stoked anew among those in green. In an extreme situation, a mass riot could become a dangerous excuse for those who seek to undermine the democratic system by using the upsurge of radicalism as its pretext.
This is no small detail in Brazil, where the past may be dark but the future remains murky.
Carol Pires is a political reporter and a regular contributor to The New York Times in Spanish.