Sao Paulo (AFP) -
Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva launched his campaign for a new presidential term Saturday, vowing to rebuild Brazil after what he called the 'irresponsible and criminal' administration of far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.
The campaign launch sealed a remarkable political comeback for the 76-year-old leftist icon, four years after he was jailed on controversial corruption charges.
'We're ready to work not only to win the election on October 2, but to rebuild and transform Brazil, which will be even more difficult,' the charismatic but tarnished steelworker-turned-politician told a rally in Sao Paulo.
'We need to change Brazil once again... We need to return to a place where no one ever dares to defy democracy again. We need to send fascism back to the sewer of history, where it should have been all along,' he said in his trademark gravelly voice.
It was hardly a secret Lula, who has enjoyed a long -- though shrinking -- lead in the polls, would jump into the campaign, which does not officially start until August.
Lula, who led Brazil through an economic boom from 2003 to 2010, has been in unofficial campaign mode since March last year, when the Supreme Court annulled the corruption convictions that sidelined him from politics.
The Supreme Court's finding of bias on the part of the lead judge in the case, Sergio Moro -- who went on to become Bolsonaro's justice minister -- instantly set up this year's elections as a polarizing clash between arch-enemies Lula and Bolsonaro.
- Surprise return -
Lula left office 12 years ago with approval ratings of 87 percent, after presiding over a golden period that lifted some 30 million Brazilians from poverty.
But the onetime shoeshine boy's towering legacy came crashing down with the explosion of 'Operation Car Wash,' a sweeping investigation that uncovered a massive corruption scheme centered on state-run oil company Petrobras.
Lula was convicted on bribe-taking charges and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
He started his sentence in April 2018, removing him from that year's presidential race, which Bolsonaro won on a wave of outrage against Lula and his Workers' Party (PT).
Lula, who calls the case a conspiracy, was released pending appeal in November 2019 but was barred from politics until last year's ruling.
In a Brazil deeply divided over Bolsonaro's combative style, social media polemics, weak performance on the economy and chaotic handling of Covid-19, Lula returned to the ring with the immediate status of front-runner.
- 'Disastrous' gaffes -
But Bolsonaro, 67, has narrowed the gap in the latest polls -- and made it clear he won't leave power without a fight.
Lula has meanwhile made a series of recent gaffes, alienating voters from several key groups with politically tone-deaf remarks on abortion, the police and the middle class.
He has also looked out of sync with world leaders he aspires to rub elbows with again -- saying, for example, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is 'as responsible as' Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the Ukraine war.
'He has made several disastrous statements in recent weeks,' Sylvio Costa, founder of news site Congresso em Foco, told AFP.
'And, above all, Lula needs to go to the street.'
The veteran leftist said he would now do just that, criss-crossing the country to meet with 'the people.'
Wearing a sharp navy suit, his shirt open at the collar, he stuck strictly to the script at his rally, rather than speaking off the cuff as he typically does.
But he was short on tangible planks for his platform.
'Instead of promises, I present the immense legacy of our administration,' he told the cheering crowd of thousands.
Lula has reportedly shaken up his campaign team recently, removing long-time ally Franklin Martins as communications chief.
Courting the wary business sector and seeking to build a broad base, Lula has tapped market-friendly centrist Geraldo Alckmin -- the opponent he defeated in the 2006 presidential race -- as his running-mate.
'Brazil today has the most disastrous and cruel government in its history,' Alckmin, a former Sao Paulo governor who was home with a mild case of Covid-19, told the rally by video link.
'Lula is our only hope.'