By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) – Former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin joined the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) on Wednesday, taking the first step in officializing a once-unimaginable union with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as the leftist’s running mate in the October election.
Alckmin, a center-right political veteran who unsuccessfully ran against current far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, is expected to lure pro-business centrists to former president Lula’s ticket.
Lula, whose Workers Party (PT) governed Brazil from 2003 to 2016, maintains a 13-15 point lead in early polls over Bolsonaro. Voters are angry at Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, rising inflation and sky-rocketing fuel prices.
Those issues have played into Lula’s hands – and helped sand off the rough edges of his controversial legacy in Brazil. Many here still recoil at years of PT corruption, as well as bribery charges that put Lula in jail until they were annulled.
Addressing a cheering crowd at a PSB event in Brasilia, Alckmin heaped praise on his former rival.
“Lula is the best hope for Brazil,” said Alckmin, a soft-spoken and uncharismatic politician. “I came here to join forces to win this election.”
Alckmin said a re-elected Lula would reduce social differences that have grown under Bolsonaro and recover Brazil’s prestige on the world stage.
Lula’s political alliance with Alckmin represents a stunning about-face by the two men, who ran off against each other in the 2006 election, in which Lula was re-elected. During a TV debate at the time, Alckmin said Lula’s government only had two gears, “stuck with the economy or accelerating in terms of scandals.”
But Bolsonaro’s political vulnerability appears to have chilled relations between Alckmin and Lula, opening up a path for a marriage of convenience.
Political analyst Andre Cesar said having Alckmin on the ticket was a clear sign of moderation from Lula and could win over conservative voters, especially in wealthy Sao Paulo state where Alckmin still has political capital.
“He is telling voters his government will not be radical or extremist, far from it,” the analyst said.
The move was comparable to Lula’s 2002 letter to Brazilians that calmed jittery financial markets and ensured his election, said Cesar, founder of Hold Assessoria Legislativa consultancy.
Late last year, Alckmin left the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party after 33 years. By joining the PSB, he now has a political party from which he can run as Lula’s vice president. The PSB will back Lula, who has not formally announced his candidacy, in a leftist alliance.
PSB leaders, including four state governors, slammed Bolsonaro for dismantling Brazil’s social and environmental policies, saying hunger among the poor that Lula had eliminated has returned under Bolsonaro.
“We must unite to defeat the far-right candidacy of Bolsonaro,” said PSB Lidice da Mata from Bahia.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; editing by Diane Craft)