From Janitor to Chief Justice: Could Joaquim Barbosa be Brazil’s Next President?

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Mr. Barbosa’s standing in the poll is remarkable considering that he has stayed out of public view and still has not said whether he will, in fact, run.

“For someone who doesn’t frequent public spaces, doesn’t give interviews, leads a quiet life, it’s pretty good,” Mr. Barbosa said earlier this week when reporters asked about his poll numbers as he walked into a meeting with party leaders in Brasília, the capital.

But he cautioned that his candidacy was not a done deal, citing unspecified “personal difficulties.”

Eurasia, a consultancy that closely tracks Brazilian politics, recently called Mr. Barbosa “the real wild card of this election.”

With six months to go before Brazilians cast their ballots in the most unpredictable and splintered presidential election since the return of democracy in the mid-1980s, the onetime front-runner, Mr. da Silva, sits behind bars with no anointed successor for his left-wing base to rally around.

The incumbent, President Michel Temer, is among the old-guard leaders who have become widely despised by the electorate amid mounting revelations of systemic corruption by the political chieftains who have run Brasília for decades.

That may set the stage for a remarkable showdown.

Excluding Mr. da Silva, the leader in the polls is Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman and ultraconservative former army captain who was recently charged with inciting racism and discrimination against blacks.

Trailing him are Marina Silva, a former environment minister, and Mr. Barbosa, who are among the few black people who managed to muscle their way into the top echelons of power in Brazil.

Slightly more than half of Brazilians describe themselves as black or mixed race.

While Ms. Silva has competed in the past two presidential elections, Mr. Barbosa is a fresh face on the political scene, which may prove an asset at a time when voters are clamoring for a break with the past.

The eldest of eight children, Mr. Barbosa was raised in the poor city of Paracatu in Minas Gerais State, where his father worked as a bricklayer. As a teenager, he worked as a janitor in a courtroom in Brasília. He was the only black student in his law school class at the University of Brasília.

Mr. Barbosa, 63, began his government career with a short stint as a diplomat, but left the foreign service after concluding that he would not advance much in a bureaucracy he found hostile to blacks. He studied abroad, learned English, French and German and worked as a federal prosecutor before becoming a judge.

Mr. Barbosa was appointed to the Supreme Court by Mr. da Silva in 2003, and he led the charge against politicians implicated in a kickbacks scandal known as mensalão, a reference to monthly payments to lawmakers in exchange for votes. The investigation landed several stalwarts of Mr. da Silva’s Workers’ Party in prison.

The election, which will take place in October, is the first since a subsequent corruption investigation known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash, which tarred much of the political elite.

Just this week, Aécio Neves, the presidential candidate who was narrowly defeated in 2014, was ordered to stand trial before the Supreme Court after he was accused of accepting a bribe and obstructing justice. Mr. Temer is accused in two corruption cases, but no trial as been set.

During his tenure on the court, from which he retired in 2014, Mr. Barbosa became famous for his blunt style and the barbs he delivered from the bench.

Yet it remains a mystery how he would act on a campaign trail. Also unclear is how many traditional supporters of Mr. da Silva, who is widely expected to designate an heir in coming months, would gravitate toward Mr. Barbosa.

Mauro Paulino, the director of the polling firm Datafolha, said this was the most fractured race in recent memory.

Anger at the political establishment has worked to the advantage of those who can present themselves as outsiders. Mr. Bolsonaro, who was regarded as a fringe legislator with a tendency to say outrageous things, has built a significant following by vowing to stamp out corruption and curb violence by giving law enforcement officials a freer hand.

“This election is about fear,” Mr. Paulino said. “Voters have never been so afraid. They’re afraid of crime, that’s why we’re seeing the support for Bolsonaro.”

None of the leading candidates have the support of a political party with a strong nationwide presence. Ana Lúcia, a public affairs specialist in Rio de Janeiro, said that could be Mr. Barbosa’s Achilles’ heel.

“He’s a person of integrity who fights corruption,” she said. “But on the other hand, he’s new to politics, he doesn’t have party connections, and because of that he couldn’t make the necessary changes.”

Mr. Barbosa may be in a strong position to attract voters who once supported Mr. da Silva.

Miguel Oliveira, a 47-year-old maintenance worker whose family is from the poor northeast of Brazil, said he had always voted for “Lula” as Mr. da Silva is universally known.

“But I’d definitely take a look at Joaquim Barbosa,” Mr. Oliveira said. “He at least knows what it means to be poor in a country where politicians are stealing all of the money.”

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Source : Nytimes