Brazilian politics just got even more depressing

Large scale protests broke out in Brazil last night after audio from wiretaps of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva were released to the media. The recorded phone calls imply that current president Dilma Rousseff appointed Lula to a government ministry solely so that he could avoid prosecution. Protesters are calling for the resignation of Dilma and the arrest of Lula. The release of the wiretaps by Judge Sergio Moro is being viewed as a controversial political maneuver with a thin legal basis.

Desperate political maneuvers

Yesterday's the appointment of embattled former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to a government ministry serves to shield him from prosecution by Judge Sergio Moro, who is behind the massive corruption investigation known as “Operation Car Wash.” The investigation has been rounding up politicians and businessmen for the past two years over allegations of bribery and kickbacks at state-owned oil company Petrobras worth some 2 billion dollars. Last week, after it was announced that Lula was officially under investigation, he was taken into police custody for questioning. Prosecutors in a separate investigation issued a warrant for his arrest. However, now that he is a minister, Brazilian law dictates that he can only be tried by the Supreme Court, which is largely made up of judges from his Workers' Party (PT).

It is also thought that Lula’s presence will help save the disastrous presidency of his successor, Dilma Rousseff. She is facing impeachment proceedings related to allegations that she illegally covered up a budget deficit. Yet another investigation by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is looking into whether her reelection campaign was funded with dirty money from Petrobras; it could lead to the annulment of her victory and the calling of new elections.

It is unprecedented for a former Brazilian president to take on a role as a government minister. Most observes assume that Dilma will cede most of her power, allowing Lula to take over the government. Ironically, Lula and others in the PT have repeatedly accused the opposition of using the Car Wash investigation to orchestrate a coup that would remove a democratically elected leader. Now they have essentially done so themselves. Even more ironically, Lula himself stated in 1988 that "in Brazil, when a poor man steals, he goes to jail; when a rich man steals, he becomes a government minister."

Disillusionment and apathy among the poor

The broad protests against corruption in Brazil have emerged in the context of the worst economic crisis in decades. No one is suffering more from this downturn than the poor. Being especially sensitive to increases in the price of essential items such as food and electricity, they have been hit hard by rising inflation. Rising unemployment has decreased their purchasing power even further. The president is widely believed to be responsible for the tanking economy, and over half of Brazilians support her impeachment.

A lot has been made of the fact that Sunday’s anti-government protests in Brazil were largely a white, middle-class affair. This happened despite evidence that the majority of the country, including poor people of color, generally don’t support the government. Given the president’s dismal approval ratings and the broad popular support for investigations into corruption, it is clear that Brazilians of all social classes and races are generally dissatisfied with the state of Brazilian politics.

Several recent articles have tried to figure out why the country’s poor were largely absent from the protests. In interviews with inhabitants of São Paulo's periphery, some noted their support for the protests but pointed to the difficulty and cost of actually getting there (Brazil’s public transportation infrastructure is notoriously inadequate). Others cited being politically disengaged, too exhausted by their daily struggle for survival to take much notice of what is happening in Brasilia.

Others still thought that it would simply be a waste of time, fearing that corruption is so entrenched in Brazilian politics that it will never change. Today’s developments, including Lula's appointment to a government ministry, indicate that this last group might be right.

This could possibly explain why the abstract anti-corruption message of the elite protesters did not resonate with the more disadvantaged members of society. They would perhaps be willing to make the effort to protest for the things that directly affect them personally and that the government has failed to provide, such as better public transportation, education and healthcare. It is no coincidence that the string of protests that have been flaring up in Brazil over the past few years started in response to a planned increase in bus fare. 

"This government helped many people buy homes, cars and electronics, but we still don't have health, education and basic sanitation." – Paulo Santos, a waiter who briefly attended Sunday’s protests in Rio

Disenchanted with the country’s political class, there is a feeling that the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff won’t accomplish anything and could possibly make things worse. There is also hostility towards the conservative opposition parties, which represent the political establishment and have been corrupt for generations, all while neglecting the poor.

One particular photo from the protests went viral and highlights the difference between the country’s rich and poor. A wealthy, white Brazilian couple chose to bring their dog, two toddlers, and nanny to Sunday’s protest. Clad in green and yellow, they walked ahead, while the nanny, in a pristine white uniform, pushed the stroller behind them. Supporters of the PT and the government shared the photo widely to send the message that protesters are fighting for their interests and against those of the poor. When interviewed, the nanny in question actually stated that she supported the protests and the impeachment of the president. But she also summarized the widespread sense of hopelessness at the country’s politics:

“I support [the protest]…I would like for all of this to happen, and for it to really bring results. Like I said to my boss, everyone is supporting the impeachment of the president and hoping that things will improve. But unfortunately, things are not going to change. When she leaves, whoever replaces her will continue to steal. This is how Brazil is. And we are the ones who suffer, the workers, the lower classes, because the people that have money, like the politicians, they’ll continue to be ok. The poor are the ones who always face the worst, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” – Maria Angélica de Lima, Nanny in the viral photo of Brazilian protests

Corruption in the past, present and future?

Corruption has a long history in Brazilian politics. However, past corruption scandals pale in comparison to what has happened under the Workers’ Party (PT), which has overseen a level of graft unprecedented in its audacity and magnitude. Nevertheless, members of the opposition are far from innocent and have benefited from a long-standing culture of impunity.

Indeed, one criticism against the Car Wash investigation is that it has appeared to single out members of the PT while ignoring allegations of corruption against politicians from other parties. However, it now seems that public opinion is starting to turn against this position, placing pressure on prosecutors to turn their sights to prominent opposition leaders such as Aécio Neves and Geraldo Alckmin. Both were booed by the crowds when they arrived at the protests in São Paulo in light of recent allegations of wrongdoing. It is heartening to see conservative Brazilians protesters abandoning their loyalty to such figures and saying that they “don’t have any pet crooks.”

The allegations of wrongdoing against both the administration and the opposition go to show that there are no quick fixes to the vast problems in Brazilian politics. The question we are left with, then, is what will happen in the future? If we kick out all the politicians accused of misdeeds, it seems that there won’t be anyone left to rule the country. Who will fill the power vacuum? There don't appear to be any reasonable options.

The consequences of the corruption investigations and the political machinations to avoid them will certainly bring about more upheaval and uncertainty. There is already talk of new anti-government protests, as well as pro-Lula rallies. The tension is increasing, the stock markets and currency are fluctuating wildly, the specter of violence in the streets is looming. The only positive consequence of all of this in the short term is the strengthening of Brazil's institutions and the weakening of the culture of impunity. 

Looking ahead, it is chilling to think about Brazil's political future. Some on the left would like Lula to be president forever and cheer today’s developments. Others on the right are pushing for the leftist government to be replaced by a right-wing authoritarian regime, sometimes even stating that the military should take over again, as it did during a dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s. It is hard to know what is scarier, right-wing extremism or left-wing populism, both likely to be corrupt. Lula’s appointment as a government minister and the backlash against it highlight that we are just beginning to plumb the depths of cynicism and corruption in Brazilian politics.

Sources: El País, Globo Extra, Reuters, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian