Brazil's Lula: president to pariah and back

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who rose from poverty to Brazil's presidency before crashing into disgrace in a corruption scandal, made a spectacular comeback as leader of Latin America's biggest economy at age 77.

Lula, as he is affectionately known, took office Sunday for a third term as president, after beating far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a bitter election that deeply divided Brazil.

Just a few years ago, the bearded left-wing icon with a trademark raspy voice was a political pariah, controversially jailed in a corruption scandal.

His convictions since quashed by the Supreme Court -- which ruled the lead judge in the case had been biased -- Lula is now back in the presidential palace he previously occupied from 2003 to 2010.

An emotional Lula broke down in tears after climbing the ramp leading to the Planalto Palace during his inauguration ceremony, thanking the Brazilian people for their faith in him.

"This nightmare has come to an end thanks to the sovereign vote of the people," he said.

- Fall from grace -

Lula left office in 2010 as a blue-collar hero who presided over a commodity-fueled economic boom that helped lift 30 million people from poverty.

Despite fears at the time that he would be too radical, Lula's first administration mixed trailblazing social programs with market-friendly economic policy.

He gained a reputation as a moderate and pragmatic leader.

Lula also turned Brazil into a key player on the world stage, helping secure it the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

At the end of his time in office, his approval rating stood at 87 percent, a level not seen before or since.

But he then became mired in Brazil's biggest-ever corruption investigation, Operation Car Wash, which uncovered the multi-billion-dollar plundering of state-run oil company Petrobras by some of the country's most powerful politicians and business executives.

Lula spent 580 days in jail from April 2018 to November 2019.

He has always insisted he was the victim of a plot to sideline him from the 2018 presidential election -- which Bolsonaro won, boosted by disgust with Lula's Workers' Party (PT).

Lula's convictions were thrown out last year by the high court -- though he was not exonerated.

Today, Lula is as polarizing as he is popular.

- Shoeshine boy -

Lula grew up in deep poverty, the seventh of eight children born to a family of illiterate farmers in the arid northeastern state of Pernambuco.

When he was seven, his family joined a wave of migration to the industrial heartland of Sao Paulo.

Lula worked as a shoeshine boy and peanut vendor before becoming a metalworker at the age of just 14.

In the 1960s, he lost a finger in a workplace accident.

Lula rose quickly to become head of his trade union, and led major strikes in the 1970s that challenged the then-military dictatorship.

In 1980, he co-founded the Workers' Party, standing as its candidate for president nine years later.

Lula lost three presidential bids from 1989 to 1998, finally succeeding in 2002 and again four years later.

The 2022 race was his sixth presidential campaign.

- 'Most popular politician' -

Once described by former US president Barack Obama as "the most popular politician on Earth," Lula mixes political skill with a folksy touch that endeared him to many worldwide.

"He's a very gifted politician. He's a natural-born negotiator," consultant Leonardo Paz of International Crisis Group Brazil told AFP.

"Lula managed to bring almost everybody from the center-right to the left on his side against Bolsonaro" in the October election, he said.

These included centrist Geraldo Alckmin, who had unsuccessfully challenged Lula for the presidency in 2006, and will now be his vice president.

Lula, a twice-widowed father of five, survived throat cancer diagnosed in 2011. In 2017, he lost his wife of four decades, Marisa Leticia Rocco, to a stroke.

Lula has said he is again "in love as if I were 20 years old" with now first lady Rosangela "Janja" da Silva, a sociologist and PT activist 21 years his junior whom he married in May.

He has said he will not seek reelection when his current term runs out at the end of 2026.