Tumultuous times

The political system in Brazil has been rocked by a mammoth corruption investigation nicknamed Operation Car Wash, even as the country’s economy remains trapped in the worst recession it has experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

A demonstration in Rio de Janeiro in support of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on July 20.

A demonstration in Rio de Janeiro in support of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on July 20.

Cutting across the ideological divide, the entire political class in Brazil seems to be treading a knife edge. Since the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff by an opportunistic alliance in the country’s parliament last year, an activist section of the Brazilian judiciary has been rapidly on the rise.

While there were no specific corruption charges against Dilma Rousseff, the accusations were that she had lied about the size of the government deficit and borrowed from a state-owned bank to cover up the budgetary deficit. The opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which came to power after the parliamentary coup d’etat, represents the interests of Brazilian big business. While Brazil is a multiracial society, with Afro-Brazilians constituting more than 40 per cent of the population, the cabinet selected after the removal of Dilma Rousseff was all-white and all-male.

Corruption a fact of life

It is a truism that corruption in government, as well as in politics, is a fact of life in Brazil, and that its peculiar system of government necessitates perpetual political wheeling and dealing. Despite the enormous popularity of President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and the progressive policies they implemented in the country, the Workers’ Party, or Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), could never get a working majority in parliament until the early part of this decade and had to depend on centre-right parties to run the government. Money was an important inducement that secured opposition legislators’ support for key bills during the 13-year-long Workers’ Party rule. A decade ago, the PT was caught paying monthly stipends to legislators from opposition parties in order to secure their votes to pass government-backed legislation.

Michel Temer, who was Vice President under Dilma Rousseff and became the President after betraying her, faces even more serious allegations of corruption. His long political career is marked by a penchant for sleazy deals. With Dilma Rousseff’s ouster, the corrupt opposition leaders may have hoped that the investigations—known as Operacao Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash)—would come to a halt with a new President, himself a target of ongoing investigations, at the helm of affairs. But the judicial investigators, riding a wave of public approval, have shown no signs of stopping or relenting. The Temer administration may not have been able to limit the investigations, but the right wing in Brazil has reasons to be happy that the main focus has again shifted, at least for the time being, back to the Left and the PT.

Temer was recently caught on tape in a sting operation, suggesting to Joesley Bautista, one of Brazil’s richest businessmen, that bribes should continue to be paid to the former Speaker of the lower House, Eduardo Cunha, in order to buy his silence. Cunha, one of the masterminds of the soft coup d’etat that got rid of Dilma Rousseff, is currently in jail, serving a sentence of 17 years after having been convicted on charges of corruption. Temer was already under investigation for other acts of corruption when the recording was done by Bautista at the behest of the investigating judges. Bautista, who faces very serious charges of corruption himself, was promised leniency by the judges. Bautista has confessed to the judicial authorities that over a hundred high-ranking politicians, in government and the legislature, were on his secret payroll.

According to most Brazil-watchers, Temer is unlikely to last much longer in office. His approval rating stands at a dismal 7 per cent, the lowest ever for a President in Brazilian history. As President, Temer cannot be jailed, but he will lose immunity once he is removed from office. Brazilian legislators have already moved a motion of no confidence against him. The numbers now seem to be stacked against Temer, with more than two-thirds of the legislators seemingly on the verge of voting for his case to be referred to the Supreme Court. Many right-wing legislators want Temer to be replaced by Rodrigo Maia of the right-leaning Democrats party (DEM). The party is the successor of the right-wing Arena party that was created in the 1960s when the country was under a brutal military dictatorship. Temer, in a recent speech, praised the 1964 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed military coup in Brazil, while a few right-wing politicians speak nostalgically about those days.

Lula under fire

In the second week of July, it was the charismatic Lula’s turn to face the wrath of the judiciary. A Brazilian judge sentenced him to a stiff nine-and-a-half-year prison term for alleged corruption. Judge Sergio Moro, in his judgment, said that Lula had taken more than a million dollars from a construction company in exchange for favours during his term as President. The fact of the matter is that no cash changed hands. The prosecution alleges that Lula accepted the gift of a beachfront house, estimated to be worth over a million dollars. Lula vehemently denies that the house in question belongs to him. It is alleged that the engineering company which was supposed to have gifted the house had got contracts from the state-owned petroleum giant, Petrobras. The widely popular Lula now finds himself embroiled in the Petrobras scandal, which has already claimed many prominent victims in the country.

Lula had announced that he was very much in the running for the 2018 presidential election and was far ahead of other politicians who had announced their candidacies. Investors and big business interests in Brazil and outside welcomed the court’s decision in the hope that Lula would be barred from running for the presidency. The PT denounced the court’s decision, describing it as “an attack on democracy” and “one more chapter in the farce run by the coup-mongering consortium that took control of this country to suppress workers’ rights”. The country has been witnessing big demonstrations in support of Lula since the court delivered its judgment.

The activist-investigative judge Sergio Moro, who delivered the sentence, is of the view that Lula could be barred from running for office for another 18 years after his sentencing. However, Lula’s lawyers disagree, saying that the final word on the subject will be delivered by an appeals court. Lula, they insist, can run for the presidency while the case continues to be in court. In Brazil, there are loud whispers that Judge Moro has political ambitions of his own. The two most popular personalities in Brazil today are Lula and Judge Moro. After the impeachment, Brazilian society is now deeply polarised. The rich and the middle class are now vehemently opposed to the return of Lula and the Workers’ Party. The poor and the working class remain solidly behind Lula, despite the current controversies dogging him.

Lula has said that he would appeal after describing the charges against him as “a farce”. His supporters say that the ruling establishment is engaged in a witch-hunt against their hero. Lula faces trial in four more cases. His lawyers say that it is a “judicial blitzkrieg” aimed at preventing him from running for the presidency. “President Lula is innocent. For over three years, Lula has been subjected to a politically motivated investigation. No credible evidence of guilt has been produced and overwhelming proof of his innocence blatantly ignored,” his lawyers said in a statement. Other left-wing groups in Brazil have also condemned the ruling of the court. The Homeless Workers Union, a political grouping, said that the judgment was “without any basis” and that the sentence pronounced on Lula “was a judicial shortcut to remove him from the political process”.

After serving two consecutive terms as President from 2003 to 2010, Lula had demitted office with a record approval rating of 87 per cent. Lula was the first ever working-class President of Brazil. Senator Gleisi Hoffman, who recently took over as the leader of the Workers’ Party, has said that a presidential election without the participation of Lula would be “fraudulent and undemocratic”. Speaking to his supporters after the verdict, an emotional Lula said that the court had no proof and that his conviction was politically motivated. “They haven’t taken me out of the game yet,” Lula averred.

With Lula out of the reckoning, it will be easy for the Brazilian oligarchs to push back the progressive reforms that the Workers’ Party introduced, such as the “Bolsa Familia”, a social programme that provides financial assistance to needy families. The anti-poverty programme has won admirers worldwide and is an important poverty-reducing factor in Brazil. Today, Brazil is in the grip of the worst economic crisis it has experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. With global commodity prices down and foreign direct investment drying up, prospects for the Brazilian economy look bleak, at least for the immediate future. In July, the Brazilian Senate approved new labour reforms that, if implemented, will remove unemployment benefits and union rights. The unemployment rate already hovers around 13 per cent. Brazilian workers organised nationwide strikes on June 30 to protest against the new moves by the tottering right-wing government to further curtail working-class rights.

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