(CNN)Former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday launched a stinging attack against President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of Covid-19, days after a judge cleared the way for his political comeback.
Former Brazilian President Lula attacks Bolsonaro as his path to a political comeback clears
The former President, better known as Lula, neither confirmed nor denied heated speculation that he might now challenge Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential race as the left-wing Workers Party candidate, saying only that it was "too early" to engage in that discussion.
"When it arrives in 2022, the party will discuss whether we have a candidate or whether we act on a broad front," he said.
"My head doesn't have time to think about candidacy in 2022," he added. "We have a lot to do before we talk about ourselves."
Da Silva had been convicted for corruption and money laundering in 2017 stemming from a wide-ranging investigation into the state-run oil company Petrobras, dubbed "Operation Car Wash." Those convictions were annulled on Monday by Brazilian Supreme Federal Court Justice Luiz Edson Fachin, effectively restoring his right to run for office.
Speaking on Wednesday at the ABC Metalworkers Union in São Bernardo do Campo, the same place where he spoke to supporters moments before going to prison, da Silva hailed the ruling as acknowledgment "that there was never a crime committed by me... that there was never any involvement of mine with Petrobras."
According to the judge's statement, judicial procedure in da Silva's case was flawed from the beginning because the Federal Court of Curitiba which ruled on his conviction did not have jurisdiction. "With this decision, all the rulings handed by the 13th Federal Court of Curitiba are declared null," the statement from Fachin's office read, ordering that two cases in which da Silva was convicted be processed again at the Federal Court of Brasilia.
What happens next is up to the broader Supreme Court. According to CNN Brasil, the country's attorney general has promised to appeal Fachin's ruling. Even if the Supreme Court upholds it, da Silva could still be convicted again in a retrial. Meanwhile, a separate vote by the Supreme Court this week could also see the cases tossed out.
For now, however, the way has been cleared for the former president to return to politics, potentially reshaping the 2022 election landscape. If da Silva runs for president next year, it could be difficult for a centrist candidate to emerge and would likely push Bolsonaro to implement more populist policies in the hopes of solidifying his base.
"Don't be afraid of me, I am radical because I want to go to the root of this country's problems," da Silva said Wednesday.
Bolsonaro, the so-called "Trump of the Tropics," faces fierce criticism of his handling of the pandemic. The country reported a record high of Covid-19 deaths Tuesday, with 1,972 new fatalities in 24 hours bringing the total toll to 268,370.
He defended his pandemic response from da Silva's criticisms late on Wednesday, telling CNN Brasil that his government empowered local officials and arguing that imposing lockdown measures -- which he has refused to do -- would only "lead the citizen to a situation of poverty."
Bolsonaro, who has previously said he hoped Brazil's Supreme Court would restore da Silva's convictions, also accused his predecessor of 2022 ambitions. "Former President Lula is now starting his campaign. Because he has nothing good to show and this is the [Workers Party] rule, their campaign is based on criticizing, lying and misinforming," he said.
Da Silva, now 75, has enjoyed immense popularity in Brazil over the years. A longtime friend of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, da Silva brought working class bona fides to the Brazilian presidency as a former metal worker and union leader.
When he left office in 2011 after two terms, it was with a 90% approval rating -- though his handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached for breaking budget laws during her second term, after her approval rate plummeted amid the corruption scandal engulfing the Workers Party.
Nonetheless, da Silva was also the frontrunner in his 2018 race against Bolsonaro, before being forced to drop out due to his legal troubles, which his party derided as a "farce" at the time, designed to keep him from claiming a third term.
The Curitiba court that originally convicted da Silva -- led by Sergio Moro, later appointed justice minister by Bolsonaro -- found that the former president benefited from the renovation of a triplex in a beach town near Sao Paulo by the construction company OAS, which was deeply implicated in the Petrobras bribery operation.
The charges were connected to 3.7 million reais' ($1.1 million) worth of bribes received from OAS through the beachfront apartment. In return, da Silva helped the builder acquire contracts from the oil company, the prosecutor's office said -- charges he has long denied.
Da Silva served just 18 months of a reduced sentence of eight years and 10 months before his release in November 2019.