Lula vows 'peace and love' for polarized Brazil in comeback attempt

Brazil's former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva talks during an event with intellectuals and artists in support of his candidacy for president in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

BRASILIA, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Brazilian leftist Luis Inacio Lula da Silva is within reach of a dramatic comeback in Sunday's election, four years after the popular two-term president watched from a jail cell as his party was trounced in the last presidential campaign.

Graft convictions barred him from running for president in 2018, when far-right President Jair President rode into office on a wave of antipathy towards Lula's Workers Party.

Last year Brazil's Supreme Court annulled those convictions. Now Lula is leading the presidential race by a comfortable margin, according to most polls, with some showing he could win the election outright, without a second-round vote on Oct. 30.

With a gravelly voice and grandfatherly charm, the 76-year-old former union leader, who led strikes against a military dictatorship in the 1970s, is now promising to restore political calm in a country polarized by Bolsonaro's right-wing populism.

"Little Lula, peace and love, is back," Lula has said in interviews during an election campaign unsettled by rising political violence and even killings of his supporters.

Lula led Brazil from 2003-2010 during a commodities boom driving robust economic growth, which helped him reduce the country's deep social inequalities, lift millions from extreme poverty and expand access to education and healthcare.

He left office with an unprecedented 87% approval rating. But his legacy was tarnished by a deep recession overseen by his hand-picked successor and former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached for breaking budget rules.

Brazil's largest-ever corruption investigation also caught dozens of business figures and politicians skimming billions from overpriced contracts with state companies. Lula was put on trial for receiving real estate and other gifts.

He spent 580 days in jail until his November 2019 release.

The Lula that reemerged is a pragmatic politician vowing to fight rising hunger and unemployment, while channeling credit into key industries to create jobs and restore solid growth.

He has forged a broad center-left coalition of 10 parties while reaching out to business leaders and former enemies.

For running mate, Lula chose his rival in the 2006 election, former Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, whose moderate views have reassured some investors that Lula will avoid extreme state intervention in the economy.

At a dinner in Sao Paulo this week, Lula assured more than 100 Brazilian business executives – many Bolsonaro backers – that he will be fiscally responsible and attend to their concerns.

Lula promised to attract foreign investment by restoring Brazil's international credibility as a steward of the Amazon rainforest, where Bolsonaro has let deforestation soar to a 15-year high.

The business leaders applauded, said sources at the meeting.

Undiminished by his years in the wilderness, Lula's charisma lets him to connect with a room of Sao Paulo's business elite as easily as he chats with hungry sharecroppers in the poor interior of northeast Brazil, where he was born.

There is no sign of anger or desire for revenge after his incarceration.

After losing his first wife to a stroke while he was in jail, Lula remarried last year, to sociologist Rosangela da Silva, known as Janja.

"I have lived a full life. I have no time for hatred or revenge. I only have time to believe that tomorrow will be a better day," he said in a campaign ad.

Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Daniel Wallis

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