Rousseff’s political crisis is a mix of Cardoso’s and Lula’s
There is a lot of 1999 and 2006 in Brazil’s current political crisis. Some would call it perfect storm because there is so much involved: a quagmire in Congress, a big corruption scandal, the economy in dire straits, the risk of energy shortage and widespread popular discontent taking middle class to the streets. But we have been there before. The two main differences between now those days lie in President Dilma Rousseff herself; she is not as astute as a political conciliator and her tightly won reelection sparked more hard feelings in the establishment since it was won in a much more aggressive campaign. Still, a lot of the challenges now are similar to those that Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva faced at the Palácio do Planalto years ago.
In March 1999, about 100,000 took to the streets against President Cardoso, who had a vast majority in Congress and very little opposition there. Most of those in the demonstration were union workers led by Lula, no doubt, but that was the biggest demonstration Brazil had seen in a while. Reasons were many: the peg to the dollar disappeared and that made inflation rise steeply, unemployment was getting higher and the risks of energy shortage were visible (later that year there were national blackouts). A corruption scandal linked the Cardoso himself to buying political support so he could make an amend to the Constitution and run for reelection. There were no investigations, despite a lot of evidence, but people still had that on their minds on Paulista Avenue.
In March 2006, President Lula was wondering whether he should run for reelection or not. The kickbacks for votes in Congress scandal, known as mensalão, linked his 2002 campaign directly to bribes — and that included major picks, including his Vice President José Alencar. His party chairman, a former speaker, his Chief of Staff, his Finance Minister and many key deputies and senators had to resign or keep quiet so he wouldn’t be engulfed by the crisis. The general attorney’s office was prosecuting many of those cases, and every Friday there was tension everywhere before weekly magazines were out. The incumbent blamed the press and the opposition for creating a divisive atmosphere that was actually fostered by Lula too. The economy wasn’t in its best days.
The current crisis shows that Rousseff is a worse politician than both Cardoso and Lula. Period. She doesn’t listen even to allies. But it is also a good sample of how much Brazilian institutions have improved. Even those on the streets now don’t actually mean it when they carry signs calling her corrupt. She has been long known for not tolerating that and it is one of the reasons why she doesn’t get along with many of the folks in Congress. Having a president that is less flexible with scandals is a positive, no matter how unskilled she is in tricking the corrupted into going along with her platform. She did try just that during my stay in Brasilia in 2011 and 2012, but the effort was short-lived enough to assure that few crooks actually lost their big jobs forever.
Another improvement in comparison with those days is that Justice and the general-attorney are doing their job. In 1999, they did nothing. And they had key Congressmen and a governor saying that Cardoso himself offered them bribes, as a couple of media outlets revealed. In 2006 under Lula, these institutions did little, despite paving the way for the first ever convictions of top tier politicians in Brazil’s recent history. It could have been much, much more. Now there is a sentiment that no one is being spared, at least by Justice — off the record, Federal Police are afraid the whole thing might fall apart if investigations don’t go deeper with more phone records and bank statements. Still, institutions now work more responsibly and effectively. Better than 1999 and 2006.
Both in 1999 and 2006, there were calls for these presidents to resign or to be impeached. In 2006 they were milder, since there was an election just in a few months, but they existed. Against Cardoso, though, Lula endorsed a move to get him out. Deputy Aecio Neves, who is now a defeated presidential candidate, said that was an attempt for a coup. The theater today is the same after about one million people went to the streets in anti-Rousseff protests. About half of those protesting wanted more effective anti-corruption measures, according to Datafolha polls. But about a quarter preferred to see her out. The media frenzy is surely bigger now, you can read the word impeachment everywhere. But now more people recognize, even in the opposition, that she must complete her term.
So what will happen in a few years? Another perfect storm? It is hard to say. Lula never dipped as much in popularity, but Rousseff’s 13% job approval, according to Datafolha, is the same of Cardoso’s in his worst moment. After all the turmoil in 1999 and a more serious energy crisis in 2000, he became a lame duck that wasn’t even mentioned by people in his party in the 2002 presidential campaign. It was one of the reasons why Lula won. Now, Rousseff is at serious risk of becoming an early lame duck, with Lula running political alliances instead of her. It could be a move if he seriously plans on running again in 2018. Unlike 12 years ago, he could be the one carrying the weight of an unpopular president — not to mention he is not safe from investigations himself.
But all the political landscape will depend on how Brazil and Rousseff deal with the Petrobras scandal. The economy issues will be dealt with one way or the other, but there must be an end to the presidential coalition system that fostered corruption under Rousseff, Lula, Cardoso and all the others. If more effective anti-corruption measures come out, all the economy matters will look like déjà vu. One of the reasons why so many people took to the streets is that they see the same characters involved in scandals for ages. One example is the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, who was a Justice Minister for Cardoso and a key leader for Lula.
If Rousseff’s successor, whoever that is, puts him in a big role in a few years time, be sure that Brazil has failed now.