A mural of the legendary composer Monarco welcomes revellers to the suburban base of one of Rio’s most beloved samba schools, Portela.
But the crowds that flooded the building this week came to hear another silver-haired celebrity: Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who could be just days away from one of the most stunning political comebacks in recent history.
“Lula’s the love of my life,” said Natan Vitor da Silva Rosa, an unemployed 26-year-old who attended the ex-president’s samba school rally dressed as the man he hopes will be elected Brazil’s next leader on Sunday.
Rosa was six when Lula first claimed the presidency in 2002, vowing to bring social justice to one of the world’s most unequal nations. Two decades later Lula, now 76, is back, and seemingly poised to defeat the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, when more than 156 million Brazilians vote this weekend.
“When Lula was president Brazilians weren’t going hungry. All Bolsonaro knows how to do cause trouble … I want Lula back,” Rosa said, predicting his candidate would win in the first round.
The polls are slightly less categorical, although with just days until the election Lula has the wind in his sails with a lead of up to 17-points over his rightwing rival.
Most polls suggest the veteran leftist, a former factory worker who first ran for president in 1989, is tantalisingly close to securing the overall majority of votes needed to avoid a run-off against Bolsonaro in late October.
“My sense is that if the election was held today, it’d be over in the first round,” said Flávia Oliveira, a political commentator for the television channel GloboNews, although she warned multiple factors were at play.
“There’s the question of turnout, which is hard to predict. If it rains it could affect things. If there are outbreaks of violence it could have an impact too. Many people are afraid,” Oliveira said of a toxic campaign that has seen a succession of politically motivated attacks and murders.
Desperate for a round one win, Lula’s campaign is battling to secure support from beyond the left, and convince supporters of the third- and fourth-placed stragglers to vote tactically for the Workers’ party frontrunner.
At Sunday’s samba-themed shindig, Lula was flanked by Rio’s centre-right mayor, Eduardo Paes, who urged spectators to back a man he called Brazil’s greatest living politician. “He’s the figure who embodies the hope of our people,” said Paes. “Vote for whoever you want, so long as you vote Lula.”
Addressing thousands of supporters in the packed samba school, Paes recalled how his father died on a ventilator during a Covid outbreak that Bolsonaro catastrophically mishandled, claiming more than 685,000 lives. “It’s unacceptable,” Paes declared, wiping away a tear as he pondered whether his father might still be alive had Bolsonaro bought vaccines more quickly.
Lula, who was barred from the last election in 2018 after being jailed on subsequently annulled corruption charges, seems to be succeeding in attracting non-leftist voters tired of Bolsonaro’s chaos and alleged coup-mongering.
In recent days several influential critics or centrists, including the former chief justice, Joaquim Barbosa, and former finance minister, Rubens Ricupero, have publicly championed Lula in what is widely considered Brazil’s most important election since democracy returned in 1985.
In a scathing video message, Barbosa said the world’s major democracies considered Bolsonaro a “contemptible, despicable human being”. Lula was the solution.
Ricupero was under no illusion Lula would prove Brazil’s “great saviour” and argued the two-term president had already fulfilled his “historic role”. Winston Churchill was “a shadow of his former self” when he reclaimed power in 1951, also aged 76.
But Ricupero said Bolsonaro, a former soldier who hints he will reject a result he considers “abnormal”, posed “a real and present danger” to democracy and needed stopping. “If he’s re-elected the chance of us becoming an authoritarian regime like Orbán’s Hungary really increases,” Ricupero said. “I’ve no enthusiasm for the other option but unfortunately it’s the lesser evil.”
As the centre-right congressman Marcelo Calero pushed his way through the crowds at Lula’s jammed samba event, he said Brazil faced a moment of reckoning. “We’re here to reiterate our struggle against any attempt at rupture or regression,” Calero said. “On 2 October we’ll vote for democracy.”
Paulo Celso Pereira, an executive editor at the newspaper O Globo, said it was unclear whether such support would help Lula clinch victory on Sunday, but he suspected it would.
Ultimately, Pereira believed Bolsonaro’s image was now so tainted with most voters that re-election was impossible, even if he reached the second round.
“[During the campaign Bolsonaro] tried to create the narrative that he’s a president who talks nonsense but is sincere, has governed well and is taking care of people … [His message has been:] ‘Look at my government, not at my quotes.’ But you can’t fix four years in one-and-a-half months,” Pereira said.
“The lack of empathy Bolsonaro showed to those who died during the pandemic … was really significant when it came to [the opposition] painting a picture of a man with no heart.”
As Portela’s musicians waited for Brazil’s likely next leader to take the stage, one old hand composer said his friend Monarco, who died last year, would have been thrilled to see Lula returning to power. “His heart would be racing with happiness,” said Zé Maria, 64.
What did the sexagenarian sambista make of Bolsonaro’s chances?
“It’s over, isn’t it?” Zé Maria replied bluntly. “His days are done.”