Brazil: Between the rule of law and the rule of politics

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Lula and Rousseff’s political manoeuvres have resulted in a political chaos (Source: Getty)

President Dilma Rousseff's hope of surviving a looming impeachment are becoming dimmer each day.

On Monday, the Brazilian Bar association filed a new process to remove her from power on the grounds of accounting fraud. Yesterday, her party, PT, lost their largest ally in the Brazilian Congress as centrist party PMDB, presided by vice-president Michel Temer, withdrew their support from the government.

As investigations on the Petrobras corruption scandal move forward, it becomes increasingly plausible that Rousseff's opposition might pull off the 342 votes (out of 513) to secure her impeachment.

Read more: Petrobras corruption is a sideshow: This is what's really destroying Brazil

Bitter lesson

This series of defeats should teach PT a bitter lesson: not all judicial disputes can be won with political tactics. In a tapped phone call, Lula stated his belief that “a motivated congressional base can make the difference in this trial”, as if the courts were but the superstructure of a real political fight. His strategy has been to apply political force against political and non-political agents, including court judges and investigators.

"There is no more truce, we should stop believing in the juridical battle", Lula told Rousseff in a subsequent call.

Her government’s recent bold and unpopular measures suggest she agrees with Lula. The government appointed a new minister of justice and decided to replace the head of the federal police as well as the investigation’s team.

No move, however, produced stronger backlash than Rousseff's appointment of Lula as chief of staff on 16 March.

Being part of Rousseff’s cabinet would protect Lula from an ongoing criminal investigation by the public ministry. A series of recorded phone calls suggest shielding Lula from legal persecution was part of Rousseff’s intent.

Read more: Brazil was a shining star - but Dilma and the Petrobras scandal leave it in crisis

Lula's appointment was later suspended by Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court judge. Unable to formally take his ministerial post, Lula has resorted to informal activities, meeting with prominent political figures and the international media in an attempt to rebuild Rousseff’s reputation and governing coalition.

This is a daunting task even for a man of Lula’s political track record. Rousseff's divisive reelection campaign burned too many bridges between the president and her political adversaries. Her government’s open war against Eduardo Cunha, the house speaker currently under investigation for corruption, diminished the government’s ability to articulate support for its agenda in congress.

More fundamentally, however, PT's failures rest on the party's insistence of bringing political weapons to a legal fight. Recorded phone calls between Lula and his allies revealed how strongly the former President believes that congressional action could determine the outcome of legal processes and investigations.

In one phone call, we hear Lula asking Dilma's cabinet to talk to Supreme Court judge Rosa Weber about the investigations against him. In another, Lula argues for political pressure against the investigators.

“They ought to be afraid," he tells a Brazilian congressman, "they ought to be worried". "They ought to know that on the next day there will be ten congress members in their home (...) ten speeches in congress against them, mentioning their name.”

Perhaps Lula’s tactics could have worked in the past, when PT faced the opposition of the Social Democrats and other political parties. This time, however, they are facing the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Police and the Brazilian courts.

Political chaos

PT has opened fire against the judiciary, calling it partisan and politically motivated. But this antagonism has alienated Brazilians who are seeing for the first time in their lives sitting politicians and billionaire businessmen going to jail on corruption charges. When choosing between PT and the judiciary, most Brazilians are siding with the judiciary.

Because judicial actions have popular support, politicians do not want to be seen supporting a persecuted government. In a year of local elections, they want to signal to voters they are also on the side of the law. Some 89 congress members switched sides against Rousseff since a pro-impeachment activist group published a website tracking politicians still supporting the government. As Lula stated in an interview on Monday, “no one likes to support a government unpopular with the public opinion”.

Lula and Rousseff’s political manoeuvres have resulted in a political chaos: an administration that openly admits trading governmental appointments for votes, a former president turned unofficial minister trying to inflate a shrinking base, and former collaborators under arrest eager to confess in exchange for leniency. Lula wanted judges and investigators to fear congress members. Instead, it is the Brazilian congress that is fearing the judiciary.

This may be bad news for the PT, but it is good news for Brazil.

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