Be­gin­ning of the end for Rouss­eff?


Twelve years af­ter surg­ing to power in Brazil, the Work­ers’ Party (PT) is at a cross­roads, strug­gling to deal with a tank­ing econ­omy and a bal­loon­ing graft scan­dal that has im­pli­cated mem­bers and close al­lies.

Party co-founder Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva, a for­mer union leader, scored a his­toric poll win in Oc­to­ber 2002, when he first led the PT to power, and main­tained eu­phoric sup­port lev­els through­out his eight-year ten­ure as the Brazil­ian econ­omy boomed.

But his hand­picked suc­ces­sor, Dilma Rouss­eff, has found the go­ing much tougher.

Chief of staff un­der Lula, Rouss­eff also chaired the board of state oil gi­ant Petrobras dur­ing much of the decade when ex­ec­u­tives are said to have col­luded with con­struc­tion com­pa­nies to mas­sively in­flate con­tracts, us­ing part of the dirty cash to bribe politi­cians — mainly gov­ern­ment al­lies.

Whereas Lula used charisma to win over the crowds, Rouss­eff is a cool tech­no­crat.

But Brazil’s first woman pres­i­dent has had to call on ev­ery ounce of po­lit­i­cal savvy as the shine of the Lula years has faded.

With the Petrobras in­ves­ti­ga­tion drawing in a slew of politi­cians — in­clud­ing the PT’s trea­surer — a ma­chine that has or­ches­trated four back- to- back elec­tion vic­to­ries has strug­gled to keep the wheels turn­ing while Rouss­eff’s ap­proval rat­ings head to­ward sin­gle fig­ures.

“The party is suf­fer­ing badly,” said pro­fes­sor Car­los Pereira of the Ge­tulio Var­gas Foun­da­tion.

“It’s not sur­pris­ing that a party cre­ated un­der the ban­ner of ethics loses its le­git­i­macy when it is re­spon­si­ble for the worst cor­rup-

tion scan­dal in his­tory.”

More Cor­rup­tion

Cre­ated in 1980 to give work­ers a voice dur­ing Brazil’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, the PT now stands ac­cused of de­vour­ing the spoils of a scam that si­phoned off some US$3.8 bil­lion from Petrobras, the largest com­pany in the world’s sev­enth-largest econ­omy.

The stench of cor­rup­tion is all the greater since al­le­ga­tions emerged over the week­end of a new multi­bil­lion-dollar fraud by dozens of firms that in­ves­ti­ga­tors say paid bribes to tax of­fi­cials in a bid to have penal­ties re­duced or waived.

High in­fla­tion, the specter of re­ces­sion, a pre­car­i­ous in­vest­ment cli­mate, ris­ing public debt and a slump­ing cur­rency have only added to the at­mos­phere of cri­sis.

The Petrobras af­fair broke 12 months ago, and although Rouss­eff nar­rowly won re- elec­tion in Oc­to­ber, her camp has come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure, with PT trea­surer Joao Vac­cari fac­ing pros­e­cu­tion for cor­rup­tion and money laun­der­ing — al­le­ga­tions he de­nies.

The pres­i­dents of Brazil’s Se­nate and the Cham­ber of Deputies, both Rouss­eff al­lies, are also un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, putting the gov­ern­ing coali­tion un­der strain.

Given the broad na­ture of the coali­tion, the PT has con­tin­u­ally needed to of­fer its al­lies cabi­net posts to gov­ern smoothly.

But af­ter more than a decade in power, the PT’s al­liances are frayed, said Pereira.

“The par­ties out­side the PT are no longer dis­posed to of­fer sup­port for no re­ward. The cor­rup­tion which has de­vel­oped at the heart of the PT is the fruit of this new re­la­tion­ship with its al­lies,” he said.

‘Play the game’

Deb­ora Messen­berg, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Uni­ver­sity of Brasilia, said the PT strayed from its roots in or­der to win power.

“Af­ter los­ing three elec­tions, the core of the party changed tack, say­ing they must play the po­lit­i­cal game to win” by es­tab­lish­ing broad al­liances, she said.

The game has ex­acted a high price, with a swath of for­mer party of­fi­cials jailed in late 2013 af­ter the rev­e­la­tion of a mas­sive Con­gres­sional vote-buy­ing scheme dubbed the “Men­salao” (monthly stipend).

But while Lula’s blue- col­lar charm helped him sur­vive the dark­est days of that scan­dal, Rouss­eff has not man­aged to shrug off the Petrobras af­fair.

Two weeks ago, more than a mil­lion peo­ple marched against the gov­ern­ment and a sim­i­lar num­ber is ex­pected to do so again on April 12.

Some want Rouss­eff, who is not fac­ing ques­tion­ing over the Petrobras af­fair, im­peached — though ob­servers see that as un­likely.

“The prob­lem is the model of gov­ern­ment the PT has cre­ated,” said Lin­coln Secco, au­thor of a his­tory of the party.

Some work­ing class vot­ers, as they join the mid­dle class, also de­mand more and “the gov­ern­ment can­not meet ex­pec­ta­tions,” he said.

For­mer Lula spokesman An­dre Singer told Folha de Sao Paulo daily the PT must re­spond to the cri­sis ro­bustly.

“To re­gain moral author­ity the party re­quires strong mea­sures — im­me­di­ately ex­pel those un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­til the process is com­plete,” he said.

Singer added that the party’s cur­rent “de­fen­sive” stance “is hurt­ing it more with ev­ery pass­ing day.”

But Secco said there is no sign of an al­ter­na­tive force emerg­ing on the left that could re­place it.

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