SAO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil - Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva set the stage on Wednesday for a likely 2022 presidential run, using his first speech since his graft convictions were annulled to blast President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic and economy. Lula, whose corruption convictions were overturned by a Supreme Court justice on Monday allowing him to return to political office, said he had not decided whether to run in next year's election. But his attacks on Bolsonaro, and the format of the event, had the clear feel of a campaign launch. "This country is disorganized and falling apart because it has no government," he told the audience at the metalworkers union in Sao Bernardo do Campo, comparing the current economic crisis to strong growth and falling inequality when he led Brazil from 2003 until 2011. "Health, jobs and justice for Brazil," read a banner hanging above the stage at the union, where Lula's political career took off as he organized nationwide strikes in the 1980s. Lula attacked Bolsonaro directly for his record in handling the coronavirus pandemic, especially for delays in obtaining vaccines and for the president's public dismissal of their effectiveness. Brazil has lost nearly 270,000 people to COVID-19, the worst death toll outside the United States, as local variants push the country's outbreak into its worst phase yet. "Many of these deaths could have been avoided," Lula said. Within hours of Lula's criticism, Bolsonaro and aides appeared masked at an official event in Brasilia — a rare sighting for the president, who has shunned masks, played down the gravity of the virus and said he would refuse a vaccine. At the event, Bolsonaro defended his government's handling of the pandemic, saying Brazil would have 400 million vaccine doses by the end of this year. "We were tireless from the first moment in fighting the pandemic," he said. Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, the president's son, tweeted a photo of his father with the slogan: "The vaccine is our weapon." LULA MAKES HIS PITCH In his speech, Lula cast himself as a veteran statesman eager to set the country on the right track, stressing his respect for the free press, business leaders and the military, while calling for a broad coalition to defeat Bolsonaro. "I was called 'conciliatory' when I governed," he said. "I'm open to talking with everyone." However, Lula also reinforced longstanding views that have set financial markets on edge at the prospect of his political resurrection. The former union leader decried privatizations, central bank autonomy and asset sales by state-run oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras. "Those who are buying things from Petrobras had best be afraid, because we can change a lot," Lula said. "If the market wants to live off us selling national patrimony, then they should be afraid of me." A survey by pollster Real Time Big Data, released by CNN Brasil on Wednesday, showed both Lula and Bolsonaro with the support needed to reach a second-round vote. REUTERS
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