Demonstrators against Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva celebrate as Supreme Court justices’ votes are made public outside the National Congress in Brasília.

Eraldo Peres/Associated Press

SÃO PAULO—Brazil’s Supreme Court rejected former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s efforts to avoid jail in a watershed ruling early Thursday that is expected to land the populist leader behind bars within days and end his bid for re-election.

In a case that has divided this nation and put the country’s three-decade-old democracy to the test, the court’s justices voted 6-5 against the leftist icon, denying his request to remain out of prison while he exhausts all possible appeals against his conviction for corruption.

The 72-year-old was found guilty last year of accepting a penthouse apartment from a construction firm in exchange for favors, landing him a 12-year prison sentence and marking a dramatic fall from grace for the former shoeshine boy who left office seven years ago as one of the world’s most popular politicians.

Thursday’s ruling all but ends Mr. da Silva’s hopes of running in October’s presidential election, a vote polls show he would win. The outcome also propels other potential candidates to the front of the pack, including a right-wing former army captain, Jair Bolsonaro, and the environmentalist Marina Silva.

Brazil’s streets were largely deserted initially after the ruling early Thursday, which came at around 12:30 a.m. local time after almost 11 hours of deliberations. But authorities were bracing for demonstrations later Thursday.

“His case has divided public opinion in such a passionate way,” said Carlos Ayres Britto, a former justice at the court. But the role of Brazil’s highest court, he said, is to “apply the constitution and re-establish an atmosphere of peace, order and harmony.”

“This is a civilized country,” he said, and “the judiciary gets the last word.”

After the court’s ruling, it is now up to Judge Sérgio Moro, who convicted Mr. da Silva last year as part of the country’s massive Car Wash corruption investigation, to issue a warrant for his arrest—a mere technicality, criminal lawyers said.

Protests have broken out across Brazil’s major cities this week, led by leftist groups that believe the corruption case—and six others in which Mr. da Silva is a defendant—are part of a witch hunt by conservative parties, backed by army generals and wealthier voters.

“Lula is clearly being targeted because he was the only president who fought inequality and helped the poor,” said Conrado Pereira Sousa, 74, a retired driver who joined demonstrations in the capital Brasília Wednesday. Many held up banners denouncing what they say is a coup, reminiscent of the military intervention that led to Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship.

Meanwhile, crowds of elated Brazilians dressed in the country’s national green and yellow colors have also taken to the streets over recent days, calling for Mr. da Silva’s arrest, which they see as reinforcing the rule of law in a country racked with corruption and impunity.

“Whoever is sentenced in the appeals court should be arrested,” said Murilo Brito, a 34-year-old cattle rancher, in downtown Brasília. “If not, Brazil gets this bad image of a corruption-plagued country.”

Mr. da Silva was convicted of corruption and money laundering in July last year and lost his first appeal in January. In years past, Mr. da Silva, along with any other criminal who could afford a good lawyer, would have avoided jail for years by appealing his case all the way to the country’s slow-moving higher courts. But in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that any defendant who loses a first appeal can be forced to start serving time while filing further appeals.

In its decision Thursday, the court stuck to the widely celebrated 2016 ruling, refusing to make an exception for the former president. Bowing to Mr. da Silva’s request could have created a dangerous precedent, allowing other criminals and scores of top politicians and business leaders ensnared in the Car Wash probe to seek a similar outcome, criminal lawyers said.

“We cannot go back!” wrote Deltan Dallagnol, a leading prosecutor in the investigation, on Twitter Wednesday.

The largest probe of its kind in Brazilian history, the Car Wash investigation has revealed a sprawling scheme of bribes and kickbacks that spanned more than a decade. Now the subject of films and a popular Netflix series, the investigation has won vast popular support among Brazilians, who view Mr. da Silva’s likely arrest as the finale of the country’s gripping political saga.

In a highly unusual move Monday night, the president of the Supreme Court, Cármen Lúcia Rocha, made a television address to appeal for calm ahead of the judgment.

“We are living in times of intolerance and intransigence against people and institutions,” she said. “Without democracy, there is no respect for the law, nor hope for justice and ethics.”

Tensions have flared over the past week. Buses carrying supporters of Mr. da Silva during his campaign trail were hit by gunfire last week, although no one was hurt. The commander of Brazil’s army, Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, ratcheted up tensions further, writing on Twitter this week that the army was “heedful of its institutional missions,” and “repudiates impunity”—viewed by some as a veiled threat of military intervention if the court had ruled in favor of Mr. da Silva.

While the country’s institutions have held up relatively well during Brazil’s grueling four-year-long corruption scandal, the same cannot be said of Brazilians’ faith in democracy, studies show.

Nearly 40% of Brazilians would now back a military coup to tackle endemic crime and corruption, according to a recent study by Vanderbilt University.

Brazil’s Clean Slate law bars convicted criminals who lost their first appeal from running for office, but Mr. da Silva had vowed to make it to the ballot box regardless—a battle that experts said will be close to impossible from behind bars.

“If he’s stuck in jail he will find it difficult to remain at the center of the political debate, forcing the Workers’ Party to come up with a Plan B,” said Rafael Cortez, a political scientist at São Paulo-based consultancy Tendências.

But the party has struggled to find a replacement for its charismatic founder, who is still viewed among voters as a rare defender of Brazil’s poor in a country where politics has been dominated by the same wealthy families for generations.

—Luciana Magalhães and Jeffrey T. Lewis contributed to this article.

Write to Samantha Pearson at and Paulo Trevisani at

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