Political scandal is no joke for Brazilian president

July 21st, 2009

José Sarney is a man under fire. Photo Agencia Brasil

Sarney, a man under fire. Photo Agencia Brasil

A political scandal threatening to bring down the president of Brazil’s Senate is being portrayed by wisecrackers on file-sharing website YouTube, using spoof dialogue dubbed onto scenes from the Oscar-nominated film ‘Downfall’, depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker and Nazi Germany in 1945.

It may be a laughing matter for some, but corruption allegations surrounding José Sarney, a former president of Brazil have put him at the centre of a media storm, with political ramifications, not only for Brazil’s current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government, but his hopes of a smooth transition for his chosen successor, if she wins power at next year’s election.

It’s claimed Sarney failed to declare millions of dollars in assets and received hidden payments through a foundation, among a string of allegations against him made by a number of newspapers, including Folha de São de Paulo and Estado de São Paulo.

Police have opened a criminal investigation against Sarney’s businessman son, who it’s alleged abused family connections to win deals with state companies.

The senate is also accused of having passed ’secret acts’; under which taxpayers’ money was used to fund hidden increases in public servants’ salaries and hire employees without going through the proper channels.

Sarney, 79, who took charge of the senate for the third time in February, last month said he had no knowledge of any ‘secret acts’, before last week annulling 663 that were revealed.

He also insists that a two million-dollar mansion undeclared to electoral authorities belonged to his daughter, and that he had no control over the José Sarney Foundation, which received money from semi state-owned oil company Petrobras.

Constant scandal

Brazilians can often be heard expressing exasperation and a feeling of helplessness about a seemingly never-ending stream of corruption scandals.

Even before pressure began to mount on Sarney, months of separate revelations flowed from the capital Brasilia, including the misuse of travel expenses meant for official business and overly inflated allowances.

Under Brazil’s proportional representation system, seats in Congress and the Senate are handed out to parties based on how many votes each party receives, rather a than straight fight at the ballot box to decide which candidate will represent a particular area of the country for the next term.

Photo: Antonio Cruz, Agencia Brasil

Photo: Antonio Cruz, Agencia Brasil

Although President Lula (pictured left) has continued to score remarkably high poll ratings for a politician two-thirds the way through a second term, the voting system has left his ruling government short of the majority needed to ensure its policies become law, putting the onus on forming alliances.

In a bid to get his promises adopted, Lula turned to one of Brazil’s largest parties Sarney’s PMDB, which in the words of its detractors, is the ‘whore’ of Brazilian politics, with few ideals, willing to lend its support to those from whom it can gain most advantage.

Many are unhappy about Lula’s gushing defence of Sarney, a man seen by his critics as one of the last of a dying breed of Brazilian politicians or families, which have retained a powerful grip on corners or regions of the country, promoting their own interests, while holding up its development in the process.

The affair has given Brazil’s president multiple headaches. Not least for being seen to backtrack on critical statements about Sarney made in his earlier days as a radical union leader and politician.

Lula’s support for Sarney has infuriated members of his own Workers Party (PT), with some voters promising to shun PT in future.

Whether true or not, Lula’s backing of Sarney has also led some to say he is willing to turn a blind eye to corruption when it suits him, despite coming in to office promising to be squeaky-clean, prompting one columnist to say it is tantamount to supporting other high-profile discredited politicians.

The president needs the support of Sarney’s PMDB to ensure a smooth transition for his preferred successor Dilma Rousseff, who if elected among many other things will be charged with seeing through his pledge to build one million homes to at least partly address Brazil’s chronic housing shortage.

‘Witch hunt’

For his part, Sarney rejects the allegations against him, insisting he has no intention of stepping down, quoting the words of the philosopher Lucius Aneu Sêneca. “Great injustices can only be combated with three things: silence, patience and time,” he said.

Sarney maintains he is the victim of a media witch hunt against him – something the YouTube clip also underlines.

Portuguese subtitles added to scenes in Hitler’s bunker portray staff fretting over the existence of ‘secret acts’, before loyal associates reluctantly tell Sarney (as Hitler) that the most cited phrase on Twitter during the week was Sarney Out!

In the midst of his own misfortunes, Sarney’s character rants on about how senators should stick together to keep their perks, while angry at an uneducated Lula, who he says armed with a speech defect and an economic stimulus package, breaks wind and belches on every political platform, grabbing all the public adoration, while he himself with 50 years public service can’t make even the smallest indiscretion without the press jumping all over him.

Finally, in a scene that some might argue is a sad, but true reflection of Brazilian politics generally, as he address his staff, a woman in the guise of Eva Braun kisses and reassures the leader telling him: “Don’t worry you’ll get back in at the next election, the Brazilian people are stupid.”

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