At the start of September, I wrote that “Dilma Rousseff is about to bring down Brazil’s house of cards”. The decision that former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (President “Lula”) must stand trial for corruption shows that the tumble is well underway.
Lula, who served as president from 2002 to 2011, is accused of accepting 3.7m reais ($1.1m) in bribes. The allegations are yet another result of the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation into the state oil company Petrobras which has shaken both Brazil’s economy and its political stability.
Lula, who intends to run for president again in 2018, denies the accusations. At a rally this week attended by crowds of supporters, he called the charges a “pyrotechnic spectacle” and said they are an attempt to keep him from power. He may be right, at least on the latter point: support for the former president has never wavered, even as his successor has fallen from grace, and last month he was polling as the favourite candidate for 2018.
How can Lula enjoy such support, when the case against him has been gathering momentum and the accusations are so serious? For some context, here is a summary of some of Brazil’s major political figures:
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: Former president of Brazil (2002-2011), Workers’ party, charged with corruption, intending to run in the 2018 presidential election.
Dilma Rousseff: Former president of Brazil (2011-2016), Workers’ party, impeached last month and ejected from office for relatively minor offence of manipulating government accounts in the run-up to the 2014 election, associated with the Petrobras scandal uncovered by the Lava Jato investigation.
Michel Temer: Current president of Brazil, Brazilian Democratic Movement party (PMDB), formerly Rousseff’s vice-president, implicated in the same charges for which she was impeached, and himself subject to an ongoing impeachment trial.
Eduardo Cunha: Former speaker for the lower house, PMBD, the man who instigated charges against Rousseff, himself deeply embroiled in the Petrobras corruption scandal and accused of accepting $5 million in bribes, removed from office and barred from politics for eight years.
Waldir Maranhão: Cunha’s replacement, current speaker for the lower house, Progressive party, also entangled in the Lava Jato investigation.
Since Temer took office as acting president in May, three of his cabinet ministers have resigned after being implicated in the Lava Jato investigation. His administration is not alone: the majority of Brazil parliamentary representatives from all parties are implicated in crimes of some kind, from conspiracy to forgery.
None of this is to suggest for a moment that Lula is innocent or that he should not face trial. The Petrobras scandal involves bribes and kickbacks worth nearly $3 billion, and has devastated Brazil’s fragile economy. (Last year, one study estimated that the full cost to the economy was $27.1 billion.) According to the public prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, Lula was not only at the centre of the corruption ring – he used it to cling on to power:
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“[Lula] was the conductor of this criminal orchestra. The Petrobras graft scheme aimed at keeping the Workers’ party in power by criminal means.”
But what the charges against Lula do show is that time is running out for Brazil’s political class. The investigation has built up enough momentum that there is little chance of stopping it, regardless of the chaos that may ensue. The cards are falling, and no politician is safe.