Brazilian president under fire from own party, voters

August 21st, 2009

Students protest against-Sarney. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Students protest against Senate President José Sarney. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is facing a backlash, not only from within his own party, but also potentially from voters at next year’s presidential election.

It comes after he pressured members of his own Workers Party (PT) to vote down corruption charges against Senate President José Sarney on a Senate Ethics Commission this week.

After the commission voted 9-6 in favour of dropping charges against Sarney, Aloizio Mercadante, Lula’s party chief announced he was quitting but on Friday agreed to stay on in his job, following talks with the president.

It was 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.

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

The senate also stood 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 in combatative mood. Photo: Agencia Brasil

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

He also insisted 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.

Many are unhappy about Lula’s continued 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.

While Sarney rejects the allegations against him, insisting they are part of a media witch hunt, underlining his 50 years of public service, including five years as Brazil’s president, critics say an opportunity has been missed to start drawing a line under generations of widespread corruption in the country’s politics.

Disillusionment meets popularity

Former environment minister Marina Silva had already announced her intention to leave the party to stand at next year’s poll and has now been joined by Senator Flávio Arns whose comments that the party has abandoned its traditional moral high ground position are reflected by angry voters, leading some to say they will never vote for Lula’s party again.

“These senators have thrown the history of the party in the bin and burnt its main banner, that of ethics,” one reader wrote to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

Though Lula has said he doesn’t intend to change the constitution to allow him the possibility of being elected for a third consecutive time, it looks likely his favoured candidate Dilma Rousseff will be standing.

The make-up of Brazil’s political system means the president needs the support of Sarney’s PMDB in congress to ensure a smooth transition for his preferred successor.

Sarney’s party is seen by its detractors as having few ideals, only willing to lend its support to those from whom it can gain most advantage.

If elected, among many other things, Dilma will be charged with seeing through Lula’s pledge to build one million homes to at least partly address Brazil’s chronic housing shortage.

Dilma and the president share a quiet word. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Dilma and Lula share a quiet word. Photo: Agencia Brasil

Lula’s party won power for the first time in 2002 pledging to be squeaky clean, but senior PT figures were caught up in a damaging corruption scandal three years later that led the president to face an uncomfortable run-off for re-election in 2006.

Despite that episode, Lula’s personal approval ratings having remained remarkably high for a second-term president, perhaps even more so for one having to deal with fallout from an almost unprecedented global economic downturn.

It will be interesting to see how harmful these latest developments will prove, not only for the Lula’s Workers Party and its chances of getting Dilma elected at next year’s presidential poll, but also how voters will treat Sarney’s PMDB party.

But even before then, Dilma has other battles to fight, not least a battle with lymphatic cancer, but also now to retain her own credibility, after being accused of urging tax authorities to speed up investigations into Sarney’s affairs, something she rejects.

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