Brazil’s Political Crisis Is Reaching Breaking Point

President Rousseff’s efforts to block impeachment with the help of former president Lula have backfired, as he is now implicated in a corruption probe involving dozens of politicians. Mass protests have increased the pressure.
March 18, 2016, 8:33pm
Photo by Fernando Bizarre Jr/EPA

Brazil's political crisis appears to be building up to some kind of dramatic climax.

The starting gun has been fired for President Dilma Rousseff to defend herself against impeachment, but her initial strategy of enlisting the help of her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has backfired. This is, in part, because of money laundering charges hanging over the former president's head.

Meanwhile, more than 40 other politicians — including the speaker of the lower house of congress — are also under investigation by federal police for corruption. Most have been named within the massive Lava Jato probe into bribes in the state-owned oil company Petrobras that began two years ago, but now appears to be coming to a head as it causes chaos in the Brazilian government.

At the same time the streets are also heating up.

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Millions joined anti-government protests across the country last weekend, and for two consecutive days protesters blocked the main highway in central São Paulo. They were forcibly dispersed with water cannons by crowd control police ahead of a planned pro-government rally today.

Some believe the schism that has opened up signals the end of the current Workers' Party government.

"The fact that you have the speaker of congress, the leader of the senate, the president of the republic, and the ex-president implicated in criminal acts is the demonstration of the end of a political model that must now be renewed," said Christian Lohbauer, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo. "It will take another decade to reorganize."

The swiftly developing crisis has taken many by surprise, but Lohbauer said it forms part of a natural political cycle.

"You can see that this happens in any regime, in any country," he said. "Regimes don't last more than 12, 15 years. In England, for example, you can cite the end of the Thatcher period. There's always a breakdown."

The most recent developments in the fast-moving story surround Rousseff's appointment of Lula as her chief of staff in order to bolster her battle against the impeachment process in congress, which got formally underway this week.

Many saw this as a de facto return of Lula to the presidency.

"Former president Lula was a far more notable political coordinator and leader than Rousseff, with strong political deal-making skills," said Stephen Lock, of emerging market analysts Speyside Corporate Relations. "She may also have hoped his appointment would calm demonstrations down."

Instead, the appointment inflamed the political crisis and undermined Ms Rousseff's credibility.

Some saw the move as an effective admission that she had lost control of the presidency.

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Moreover, wiretapped phone calls between Rousseff and Lula following his swearing in as her chief of staff, suggested she told him she was sending him the relevant papers immediately "in case of necessity." This was interpreted by many to mean that his new job was intended to give him legal protection from arrest in the corruption case against him. The government position would mean he can only face trial in the supreme court.

Andrea Murta, of the US-based Atlantic Council think tank, said Rousseff had recalled Lula too late for him to save her from the growing pressures of impeachment and popular protests.

"I think there were good arguments to bring Lula in maybe last year, before the situation got to be inflammatory," she said. "But those arguments are completely gone and there is no way the government can really have any credibility in saying that this has nothing to do with protecting him from prosecution."

Lula's appointment was announced on Monday. Shortly after, federal judges filed injunctions to block his nomination, arguing it could interfere with the investigation. The government appealed and the suspensions were lifted on Friday.

Meanwhile, the process that could remove Rousseff from office is finally moving forward. Congress elected the 65 members who will analyse the impeachment petition on Thursday. For Rousseff to be impeached, 342 congressmen need to vote in favor after she has 10 sessions in which to defend herself.

Beyond the confines of high politics, there are fears that protests may descend into violence before the government can contain the crisis.

For Lohbauer at the University of São Paulo, though, the clock is already ticking fast on the Rousseff administration.

"This government has fallen," he said, adding that he expects new political faces to emerge in the 2018 election as Brazil prepares for a long recovery that will take several electoral cycles. "Maybe in 2030 there will be a reasonable state of political stability and growth."

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