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November 20, 2017
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The implosion of a country that throws out presidents and possible successors

Michel Temer (left), Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (right) are pictured in this Brazil presidential campaign stop in this file photo.
By Marcelo Falak
Ámbito Financiero

If the appeals court confirms the ruling against Lula, his political career would be over with no comeback in sight

Some outcomes never cease to astonish, no matter how expected they might be, and the nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence slapped on former Brazil president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last Wednesday by anti-graft judge Sergio Moro is a case in point.

There are inevitably several dimensions to the “surprise” linked to Lula’s personal history, to the unexpected fall from grace of somebody once considered an international hero of the fight against poverty and also linked to the tailspin of a country which has yet to hit the bottom of its political and institutional abyss.

In the midst of a socio-economic crisis perpetuated by revelations of colossal corruption schemes wherever one looks, it remains clear that the political execution of Dilma Rousseff, consummated almost a year ago, did not spell the end of the collapse. A basically informal alliance between the political establishment, big business, the urban middle classes of the major cities and the “mainstream” media ditched her and enthroned Michel Temer in her place. The key detail here is that the latter’s conspiratorial gifts may not prove enough to avoid a similar fate in the next few days.

Brazil not only chews up its presidents — it also dumps those who might fill the top job.

If Temer is suspended for six months by the Chamber of Deputies, to be tried for corruption by the Supreme Court, the person replacing him for that period (and possibly longer) would be the lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who has been named by several whistleblowers in the “Car wash” (Lava Jato) scandal.

But the drama has gone further and now places Lula da Silva, the last dinosaur still standing according to all the opinion polls and the favourite for the October elections in 2018, on the brink of political retirement.

The “clean slate” electorally disqualifies all citizens with an upheld conviction, something which (given the pace of justice in our neighbour) would most probably happen before the country goes to the polls.

The one certainty is that there will be an outcome — although it is not easy to define the form it will take.

On the one hand, Lula faces other corruption cases, which might well earn more adverse sentences and greater discredit. On the other, the risk is what could happen in the appeals court which will examine Wednesday’s verdict — the Regional Federal Court of the Fourth Región (TRF4), located in Porto Alegre.

Of the 43 Moro sentences which it has had to review, the TRF4 has confirmed 13, overturned 12 to acquit the convicted, increased the sentences in 13 cases and reduced them in five others. This breakdown could become even more confusing if we bear in mind that on several occasions it ignored Lula’s defence pleas and that a little over a month ago it quashed a 15-year prison sentence which Moro had slapped on João Vaccari Neto, ex-treasurer of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT), on the grounds that it had been based on the statements of whistle-blowers without any material proof.

This latter case is bound to be one of the arguments deployed by Lula’s defence lawyers and nor would it seem off-target after a rapid glance through the 238-page ruling published yesterday.

But it would be better to leave theorising over guilt and innocence to the interested parties and their fan clubs. The political cataclysm compounding what happened yesterday is enough for the attention of any observer.

In the above context of the defenestration of real and potential presidents, it is worth wondering about the future. Big business and a political class massively threatened with extinction and jail only seem to worry about their pro-market reforms going through. The fiscal part —freezing public spending in real terms for at least 10 years —has already been approved while the law for more flexible labour conditions was signed yesterday by Temer. The pension reform is on the way. Might this shaky president end up fulfilling his “historic mission”?

But how viable are these reforms and what would be their staying-power when their approval depends on a unanimously repudiated president and a Congress concentrating the suspicions of corruption like no other branch of government?

While Brazil purges itself, the questions grow about the nature of the leadership which will emerge from the ballot-box. A toss of a coin, depending on what reality consecrates as correct, turning into smoke and mirrors the calculations of those who saw in Brazil’s crisis the opportunity to launch a strongly neo-conservative era.


@marcelofalak

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