When Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva won Brazil’s presidential elections in 2002, the country’s downtrodden finally had a champion in Brasilia, a former union leader…
When Dilma Rousseff, his handpicked successor, took office in 2010, the country crafted under his aegis was more equitable, its economy growing. The PT seemed unstoppable.
Now, a year into Rousseff’s second term, Brazil is sliding ever deeper into recession. Dozens of its political and economic leaders — many of them PT luminaries — are falling to the widest-ranging graft scandal in the country’s history. Centered on the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, the scheme took shape during Lula’s presidency, while Rousseff served as chairwoman of the company’s board.
Then, on Dec. 2, a constitutional crisis erupted, adding to the country’s political and economic woes. On that day, Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the House, initiated impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, following an audit court decision that found she had masked a budget shortfall of $27 billion, violating the country’s fiscal responsibility law. Days later, the Supreme Court gave Rousseff a reprieve, voting against the secret ballot by which the House had selected the impeachment committee, and clarifying that the Senate has the right to veto the process.
But this offers scant respite for the president. Two out of three Brazilians think she should resign, independent of what Congress does. Her governing coalition is unraveling. Her vice-president is reportedly preparing his own play for her position. And her party, battered on multiple fronts, is fighting to save itself — even if that means sacrificing Rousseff.
The man behind this political hedging, analysts say, is Lula, Rousseff’s former mentor and predecessor. For him, the political calculus is equal parts simple and perilous: rally behind Rousseff and risk going down with her, or cut her loose to muster strength for his own defense and political future, risking the party’s integrity for now, but perhaps salvaging enough of its popular appeal for future battles.
“It is a chess game in which the queen is being sacrificed to save the king,” said David Fleischer, a social scientist at the University of Brasília and seasoned political observer. “Rousseff can be sold as a martyr, and used as leverage by Lula” to bolster his own position and perhaps stage a comeback in 2018.
The political challenges he faces are steep. The PT and the rest of its governing coalition remain deeply tangled in the still-unraveling Petrobras scandal. Prosecutors charge that the nation’s biggest construction firms paid over a billion dollars to politically appointed executives of the state-run oil firm, who in turn enriched themselves and channeled funds to their political sponsors and the governing PT (though Rousseff herself has not been charged.)