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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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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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