Update – Brazil’s 2006 Elections: Corruption Charges Could Catch Up With Lula

  • Lula has come under the intense scrutiny of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for his alleged involvement in his party’s attempt to smear a PSDB gubernatorial candidate’s campaign
  • Brazilian voters head to the polls this Sunday to determine Lula’s fate
  • If reelected, Lula still must face the fury of the PSDB, the opposition party slated to participate in his second term’s consensus government

Only hours away from the October 1 elections, an anxious Lula da Silva knows that he is under investigation by the nation’s electoral court under corruption charges. The electoral court’s inquiry will focus on the president’s suspected participation in his party’s purchase of a slanderous dossier on Jose Serra, Lula’s opponent during the 2002 presidential contest and currently the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) candidate for the upcoming São Paolo gubernatorial race. As Lula’s closest aides practically fall on their spears in order to shield him from blame, the supposedly incorruptible leader is fast losing his composure and also his chances for an almost automatic reelection.

In the past week, implicated members of Lula’s now disgraced Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) have resigned in an effort to divert waves of negative media attention away from the president. At first, Lula dismissed the press’ speculation that he pressured his campaign manager and PT President Ricardo Berzoini to step down on September 20 as a result of the allegations which have battered the Lula presidency. Lula originally attested to his campaign manager’s innocence, but later said that he could not afford to field questions regarding the scandal days prior to the election. Lula’s security aide also resigned on September 18, likewise denying any wrongdoing.

However, now that Lula himself is a target, he has changed his defense. He has since turned on Berzoini, lashing out at his former comrade for his “stupidity.” Since it is uncharacteristic of Lula to dress down a close advisor, the normally confident leader must have been dismayed by the recent barrage of publicity. He has publicly expressed his chagrin at having to face the “massacre” of media attention that has hounded him since news of the latest scandal broke. Furthermore, despite proclaiming his eagerness to face comments from rivaling candidates Geraldo Alckmin of the PSDB and Heloisa Helena of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL) at Thursday’s final debate, Lula pulled out three hours before the event began.

Alckmin, to his credit, seems to have belatedly found his voice. In an uncharacteristically assertive move, Alckmin has revamped criticism at his rival, realizing that hitting Lula where it hurts may give him his only chance at the presidency, or at least to topple the race into a second round, which would take place on October 29.

Although recent events indicate that a second round is a possibility, the latest poll figures suggest that Lula is still likely to sweep the elections. Polls predict that Lula will secure upwards of 50 percent, as compared to Alckmin’s estimated 32 percent. However, if Lula is in fact reelected and then later implicated in the case, he could potentially be forced to step down.

Regardless of how the scandal affects Lula in the polls, it will surely detract from his ability to assemble a consensus government along with the PSDB opposition. As so many PT figures are already under investigation for past scandals, PSDB members will presumably attain a majority in the congress. Lula was supposed to court the opposition in order to minimize political obstructions along party lines. However, this coalition appears unlikely to ever come to life now that Lula himself is a suspected collaborator in his party’s attempt to slander a PSDB candidate.

Lula’s efforts to distance himself from his party’s prior wrongdoings have failed. Members of the country’s educated middle class are steadily drifting away from his banner. Association with party scandal is hardly new for Lula. In the summer of 2005, Lula barely managed to avoid formal investigation during the Mensalão campaign scandal, in which three members of his “ethics” party were convicted of bribery. This past May, the Sanguessugas healthcare scandal seriously dented the sad remains of the PT’s credibility when a shocking 72 congressmen – many of them personally aligned with Lula – were found guilty of spending their municipalities’ funds on overpriced ambulances in exchange for a windfall skim-off. Yet Lula walked away from the accusations a totally free man. Many Brazilians still wonder how he could be so oblivious to such thick layers of venality occurring around him.

However, in this latest scandal, Lula has not been so fortunate. With the elections to be held this Sunday, it is apparent that Lula must affect some miraculous damage control if he wishes to end this campaign season with his pride intact. No longer can he rely on his incorruptible image, his warm and fuzzy style, his engaging bear hugs and rhetorical embraces to automatically do his work for him. Still, he will most likely serve a second term. The Brazilian populace has seen their standards of living increase, given the low inflation, surge in employment opportunities and government hand-outs to the poor. Additionally, the fact is that Brazilians have become so disaffected by corruption that it is unlikely that the latest news will sway their allegiance. After Lula secures the anticipated winning margin of votes, he will undoubtedly have to face more difficulties than ever in bringing his fractured coalition together. Although he is innocent until proven guilty, the damage may already have been done not only to his image, but also to his second term.

A COHA Opinion: COHA has long admired Lula and led the initiative which in the 1980s brought him up to Washington while he was a labor leader to meet his U.S. counterparts. Yet we cannot pretend that Lula is remotely the magical leader he once was. He has broken the hearts of those who once saw him as a man they could deeply trust. Today, Lula is just a caricature of the galvanic figure who led so many good early fights for the cause of social justice and basic rights. He depends upon a spirited economy, and a warm personal style to dupe the average Brazilian into believing he is a bona fide leader. In fact, he is a man who has misused his country’s trust and should be shunned by his Brazilian compatriots for that very reason.