LAGARTO, BRAZIL - Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Monday accused Brazil's government of undoing social progress made during his years in office and vowed to restore it if he was allowed to run again next year.
During a three-week bus tour through impoverished northeastern Brazil, Lula lashed out at the austerity policies of President Michel Temer. He is on the road to boost his popularity in the face of corruption charges and possibly make a comeback.
At an unplanned stop where villagers blocked the road to welcome him, chanting "Out with Temer!", Lula said, "They are selling Brazil for scrap," referring to a government plan to sell public assets and infrastructure concessions.
"What they want is to roll back the gains we have made and leave you begging at the roadside," the 71-year-old leftist said from atop a truck.
Millions of Brazilians were lifted from poverty during Lula's 2003-2010 government. He is still Brazil's most popular politician, despite a corruption conviction that could bar him from running in the 2018 presidential election if upheld by a higher court.
Rising public spending under Lula and his impeached successor Dilma Rousseff led to a gaping federal deficit, a severe recession and unpopular belt-tightening by Temer.
Opinion polls show Lula winning a first-round vote in the October 2018 election, but losing a runoff because of a high rejection rate.
Many detractors blame Lula for a vast political graft scheme that flourished under the Worker's Party, calling his bribery conviction last month the end to his political career.
Yet loving crowds still turn out to hear the fiery speeches of Brazil's first working-class president, wearing the T-shirts of his Workers Party and chanting "Lula, we won't abandon you."
Party leaders have said that they have no candidate for the 2018 race but the former president. However, Lula told supporters that he did not know if he would be able to stand, calling his conviction a political persecution to stop him from running.
In Lagarto, a farming town in Sergipe, Brazil's smallest state, Lula was awarded an honorary degree at a rural university campus built by his government.
He accused Brazil's elite of denying poorer Brazilians access to a good education and vowed to cheering supporters to restore investment in universities.
One wore a T-shirt that said, "They are scared of this man returning."