Lula takes centre stage in Brazil graft probe

Once-popular leader’s image is battered in sprawling inquiry
BRAZIL-ROUSSEFF-IMPEACHMENT-PROTEST...Demonstrators rally with giant balloons depicting (L-R) Brazilian former president (2003-2011) Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, in support of Rousseff's impeachment at Paulista Avenue, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on December 13, 2015. Thousands of demonstrators clad in the yellow and green national flag's colors protested Sunday in several cities of Brazil to demand Rousseff's removal from office. Brazil's Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended action by a special congressional commission weighing impeachment proceedings against embattled President Rousseff. The move freezes the impeachment process until December 16 when the court convenes for a full session. AFP PHOTO / Miguel SCHINCARIOL / AFP / Miguel Schincariol (Photo credit should read MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images)
As Brazil’s annual carnival came to a rowdy end this week, Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva found himself centre stage in some of the celebrations — but not in a way the firebrand socialist might have liked.
In a float in the northeastern city of Recife, the man who led Brazil during the country’s boom years of 2003-2011 was portrayed by a masked reveller as a jailbird in a cage clutching bank notes while a female FBI agent armed with a whip kept guard.
The targeting of the once wildly popular leader, whose government was credited with lifting millions from extreme poverty through social benefits and wage increases, comes as an ever-growing tide of corruption investigations are lapping at the feet of his family and friends.
Allegations that his left-leaning Workers’ Party, the PT, accepted favours from construction companies in exchange for contracts with state-owned oil company Petrobras have been derided as a smear campaign by his lawyers.
But as the accusations creep closer to the former president — he and wife Marisa are due to appear at a public prosecutors’ office in São Paulo on Wednesday to give testimony in relation to some of the allegations — his political survival and that of the PT are increasingly at risk. Many analysts dismiss the party’s chances of winning municipal elections this year and of his plans to stage a comeback in the next presidential poll in 2018.
“The odds of Lula running in 2018 are very small — they already were before, now with the corruption allegations, they are even lower,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves of Eurasia Group.
The shift in the Petrobras investigations towards Mr Lula da Silva follows the arrest of scores of senior businessmen and figures from the government’s ruling coalition, including the PT former treasurer, João Vaccari Neto. The scandal has destabilised the government of Mr Lula da Silva’s chosen successor, President Dilma Rousseff, who is facing impeachment proceedings in congress.
A spokesperson for the São Paulo public prosecutors’ office said Mr Lula da Silva and his wife would be asked for testimony in relation to a beachside apartment that was allegedly renovated by a construction company involved in the Petrobras scandal for their use. Brazilian media have also reported that a country house allegedly used by the president is also under investigation.
One of Mr Lula da Silva’s lawyers, Cristiano Zanin Martins, said the allegations were mud-slinging. “There have already been presented documents that dismiss any possibility that these properties belonged to ex-president Lula,” he told the FT. “What is happening is an orchestrated campaign by some authorities that are motivated by ideology and by some sections of the press to ruin the honour and image of ex-president Lula.”
Mr Lula da Silva appeared in a video this week to mark the party’s 36th anniversary, acknowledging that “it’s true we committed errors and whoever commits an error must pay for the errors he committed”. But he urged the party faithful to hold the line against what he said was an attack by “conservatives”.
Analysts doubt, however, the former president and his party’s ability to bounce back, even without the corruption investigations. With Brazil’s economy facing its worst recession in more than a century, voters will be looking for change in the coming elections. The PT also has few alternative candidates to Mr Lula da Silva, a situation not helped by a collapse in the popularity of Ms Rousseff.
“The PT was a party built to put Lula in power,” said Mr Neves.
Some say it is too early to completely write off Mr Lula da Silva. With no clear alternative leaders emerging in Brazilian politics, he would continue to be Brazil’s most senior figure on the left, said Oliver Stuenkel of academic institution FGV in São Paulo.
“That will only change if he goes to jail or if there is massive evidence against him,” he said.
If he was convicted, however, that could have consequences for the PT and Ms Rousseff, possibly accelerating the impeachment process against her as her allies in congress lost confidence in her ability to protect them.
Whatever happens, Brazil’s political circus is likely to continue to inspire carnival goers. One model in São Paulo’s carnival parade, Ju Isen, was forced by her samba school to change an offending “tapa-sexo” — an apparatus that covers the nether regions on which she had painted Ms Rousseff’s face with a no entry sign over it as a form of protest.
“I don’t know why they prohibited it but I’m very angry,” she said. “I want impeachment, the people want impeachment.”
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