Brazil: Tumultuous Politics

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE entire political class in Brazil, cutting across the ideological divide, seem to be living on a knives edge. An activist section of the Brazilian judiciary has been energised since the ouster of President Dilma Roussef last year. There were no specific corruption charges against Dilma Roussef. The accusations against her were that she lied about the size of the government deficit and that she borrowed from a state owned bank to cover up the budgetary deficit. She was ousted by an opportunistic alliance in the country's parliament that remained unreconciled to the progressive policies that were implemented in the country under the auspices of the Workers Party (PT). The opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement which took power after the parliamentary coup d'etat that overthrew the Workers Party, represents the interest of Brazilian big business. The cabinet that was selected after the removal of Dilma Roussef was an all white, all male cabinet. Brazil is a multi racial society with Afro-Brazilians constituting more than 40 per cent of the population.

Everybody knows that in Brazil, corruption in government as well as in politics is a fact of life, like it is in many countries where parliamentary politics is in vogue. The peculiar system of government that exists in Brazil necessitates perpetual political wheeling and dealing. Despite the enormous popularity of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Roussef till the early part of this decade, the PT could never get a working majority in parliament. It had to depend on centre right parties to run the government. Money was an important lubricant that induced the legislators belonging to the opposition parties to pass key bills during the more than decade and a half Workers Party rule in Brazil. A decade ago, the PT was caught paying monthly stipends to legislators from opposition parties to secure their votes to pass government backed legislation.

Michel Temer, who was vice president under Dilma and became the president after betraying her, is now facing even more serious allegations of corruption himself. In his long career in politics, he was known for his penchant for sleazy deals. The corrupt opposition leaders had thought that with Dilma's ouster, the investigations known as Operation “Lava Jato” (Car Wash) will come to a halt with a new president, who was himself a target of ongoing investigations, at the helm of affairs. But the judicial investigators, riding on 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 Workers Party.

Temer was recently caught on tape during a sting operation suggesting to one of Brazil's richest businessmen, Joesley Bautista, that bribes should continue to be paid to the former speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, to buy his silence. Cunha, who was one of the masterminds of the soft coup d'etat that got rid of the Dilma Roussef, is currently in jail, serving a sentence of seventeen years having been convicted on charges of corruption. Temer was already under investigation for other acts of corruption, when the recording was done by the businessman at the behest of the investigating judges. Bautista, who is facing very serious charges of corruption himself, was promised leniency by the judges. The businessman, one of the richest men in the country, has confessed to the judicial authorities, saying that more than 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 in Brazilian history. As president, he cannot be jailed but he loses his immunity once he is removed from office. Brazilian legislators have already moved a motion of no confidence in 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 DEM party. The party is the successor of the right wing Arena party that was created in the 1960's when the country was under a brutal military dictatorship. Temer in a recent speech actually praised the 1964 CIA backed military coup in Brazil. A few right wing politicians speak nostalgically about those days. 

In the second week of July, it was the turn of the charismatic Lula to face the wrath of the judiciary. A Brazilian judge sentenced him to a stiff nine and a half years in prison for alleged corruption. Judge Sergio Moro in his judgment said that Lula when he held the presidency took more than a million dollars from a construction company in exchange for favours. The fact of the matter is that no cash changed hands. The prosecution alleges that Lula accepted the gift of a beach front house which is estimated to be worth more than 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, Petrobas. Lula is the tallest political figure who finds himself embroiled in the Petrobras scandal, that has already claimed many prominent victims in the country. 

Lula had announced that he was very much in the running for the 2018 presidential elections and was far ahead of the pack of other politicians who had also 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 Workers Party 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 is barred for running for office for another 18 years after his sentencing. Lula's lawyers however 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. Brazilian society, after the impeachment 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 is facing 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”.

Lula after serving two consecutive terms as president from 2003 to 2010 had left office with the 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 will 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.

If Lula is out of the picture, it will be easy for the Brazilian oligarchs to push back the progressive reforms that the Workers Party had introduced like the “Bolsa Familia”, a social programme that provides financial assistance to needy families. The anti-poverty programme has won admirers worldwide. It was 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 1930's. With global commodity prices down and foreign direct investment drying up, the prospects for the Brazilian economy are looking bleak, at least for the immediate future. In July, the Brazilian Senate approved new labor reforms that if implemented would remove unemployment benefits and union rights. The unemployment rate already hovers around 13 per cent. Brazilian workers organised nation-wide 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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