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The Endgame of Brazil’s Crisis: Four Things to Watch

A quick guide to the drama shaking Brasilia.
Dilma Lula
Por Valter Campanato/ABr - Agência Brasil, CC BY 3.0 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10631686

After one of the most eventful 24 hour periods in Brazilian history, the crisis threatening President Dilma Rousseff appears to have entered its endgame. For those trying to handicap the odds of her impeachment, or simply struggling to make sense of it all, here are four things to watch in coming days:   

1. The PMDB. If I had to choose only one thing to focus on, it would be this. Because despite all the recent drama, it remains true that the country’s largest political party will determine Rousseff’s future. Specifically, if the PMDB decides to break with the president and support impeachment, Rousseff’s odds of political survival will drop dramatically. Most observers in Brasilia believe that the lower house of Congress would likely have the two-thirds of votes necessary to shift impeachment to the Senate, where Rousseff would face trial.

So it was critical that on Thursday neither Vice President Michel Temer (who is also head of the PMDB) nor any PMDB legislators attended the swearing-in of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, according to reports. Symbols matter in politics, and this was a very foreboding one for Rousseff. Most in Brasilia believe the PMDB will formally depart the ruling coalition by mid-April.  

2. Lula’s next moves. Whether he actually becomes a minister or not, Brazil’s government now basically belongs to Lula (again). He’s wounded, for sure. But he’s still unquestionably the most talented politician in Brazil, capable of tapping into the zeitgeist of the working and political classes and telling both what they want to hear.    

In coming days, we can expect a Lula “charm offensive” in Congress as he tries to win over the votes necessary to prevent impeachment. That, along with the extra legal protection a ministerial position provides, are the two reasons Rousseff brought Lula to Brasilia. What will Lula offer legislators in return? Will he use his new influence to open the fiscal spigots for emendas (pork-barrel spending) and legislators’ pet projects? Will he shake up the economic team, and bring in someone like Henrique Meirelles to the finance ministry or central bank? Or will he push economic policy in a more leftward direction, along the lines of what investors feared when Lula first won the presidency in 2002?

3. Judicial overreach. Brazil’s judges and prosecutors have done exceptional work on the Petrobras case over the past two years. In turn, they have earned widespread accolades from the Brazilian public as well as international observers who, for example, put them on their magazine covers. But there have been increasing signs of possible overreach; even federal Judge Sérgio Moro’s most ardent admirers have criticized him over the past two weeks for his decisions to temporarily detain Lula for questioning, release a very political-sounding statement amid street protests last Sunday, and then release an explosive wiretapped conversation between Lula and the president herself.

Do such decisions endanger the investigative work done by prosecutors to date? The executive branch will certainly use every resource in its power to discredit the Petrobras investigation, portray it as politicized and maybe have certain evidence (such as the Rousseff-Lula wiretap) thrown out on procedural grounds. Convincing the public that the Brazilian judiciary is “at war” with the Workers’ Party will be an easier task than it was two weeks ago.

4. Who is at the protests? Street demonstrations exploded on Wednesday night after the wiretapped Rousseff-Lula conversations were made public. They fired up again on Thursday morning, and have shown no signs of dying down. But the protests continue to be haunted by the same question asked since 2013: Is it only the rich and upper-middle class on the streets?

This question may seem odd to outsiders, but the gap between rich and poor remains the central fact of Brazilian life – and these protests are no different. Last Sunday, when more than one million people took to the streets, polls indicated that once again the crowd was significantly richer, whiter and more educated than Brazilians at large. This matters because Rousseff and Lula’s supporters tend to come from the working class; if their “base” joins the protests, it would be a huge blow to the Workers’ Party. This isn’t such a clear-cut issue; polls have indicated that the poor are just as angry at Rousseff, and eager to see her impeachment, as everybody else. But until the working class actually takes to the streets, many will continue to dismiss the demonstrations as sour grapes or “coup-mongering” by members of Brazil’s elite.

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Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Dilma Rousseff, Lula, Brazil