As the largest country in Latin America suffers a contracting economy, its President Dilma Rousseff has faced record-low approval ratings, fueled by a continuous campaign to link her and top members of the governing Workers’ Party to a massive fraud scheme in the state-owned oil giant Petrobras.
The scandal has become an ongoing theme in Brazil’s mainstream media and has even been used by media giant Grupo Globo to openly call for Rousseff’s impeachment, a call backed by prominent opposition lawmakers.
But it is not only Rousseff who the right-wing opposition has in its crosshairs. Former president and Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva sued four journalists and the editor at Veja magazine in 2015 for publishing a front page special linking him to the Petrobras scandal.
Lula led Brazil’s economic boom from 2003 to 2010 and is still widely popular among the population. The former president has been a fervent supporter of Rousseff and his influence was decisive during the 2014 presidential elections. He is also likely to return as the Workers’ Party’s presidential candidate at the next elections.
Many believe that the right wants the scandal to damage not only the incumbent president, but her potential successor too.
When Lula’s house was raided on March 4, this came on the back of a smear campaign against the ex-president. In February 2016, Lula hit out at critics trying to tarnish his name, saying, “They are punching below the belt, there is a project in play to destroy me and our legacy.”
The former president said the accusations of corruption leveled against him have no basis in fact and no proof has been offered that can tie him to the scandal involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras. “I could have made millions and millions, but everyone who knows me knows that I was never interested in making money, but rather in transforming the country,” said Lula.
Social movements have also rallied around Lula. Under the banner of the Popular Front, they expressed their “repudiation” at efforts to link Lula to the corruption scandal.
They have accused investigators of being selective about how they were carrying out their investigation into the corruption scandal, deliberately targeting the former president and his Workers’ Party. The Popular Front also struck back at media outlets for their “criminal and manipulative” handling of the story and for attempting to smear Lula.
“The Brazil Popular Front will not accept the coup-mongering and anti-democratic stance that both sectors of the judicial branch and the mainstream media try to impose on the Brazilian people,” said a statement released in February.
In October, Deputy Luiz Sergio Nobrega de Oliveira, head of a parliamentary commission in charge of the investigation into the Petrobras scandal, said “there was no proof” against Rousseff and Lula in any of documents examined by the parliamentary commission, exonerating them of all responsibility in the Petrobras scandal
What lies behind any politicization of the corruption issue?
Brazil is currently headed by a shaky governing alliance of the Workers’ Party and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). This alliance is being torpedoed by the President of Congress Eduardo Cunha, a leading PMDB member, but one who is closely allied with the opposition. Many believe he is seeking to exploit the issue to strengthen his own power base.
The lawmaker has said that the current alliance in Congress will not hold until 2018, in a clear message of warning to the governing Workers’ Party. His party mate and head of the Senate, Renan Calheiros broke with the ruling party in a similar fashion.
Yet Cunha himself is under investigation in the Petrobras scandal and the investigations into the Petrobras scandal have also embroiled Calheiros in the fraudulent scheme.
Nonetheless, the media has emphasized Cunha and Calheiros as powerful voices, who put constant pressure over the government. Some have even called Cunha the prime minister – a position that does not exist in the country’s constitution – and Cunha himself has announced a constitutional reform proposing changing the presidential system to a parliamentary one.
The proposal has been backed by the main opposition party, the Social Democrat Party of Brazil (PSDB), whose Senator Aecio Neves was the party’s presidential candidate in the 2014 elections.
It appears there is an unholy alliance seeking to exploit a corruption scandal to try to drag the country’s politics rightwards.
Political Manipulation of Corruption
The efforts to link the Workers’ Party to the Petrobras scandal have, so far, been the main strategy followed by right-wing parties and politicians to justify an impeachment of Rousseff. They were also the main strategy used to attack Rousseff in the 2014 presidential campaign.
Despite not having enough votes in Congress to initiate an impeachment process, the media campaign, together with repeated calls for impeachment by opposition parties, have helped create negative public opinion.
Even though no evidence has been found linking the president to the Petrobras scandal, polls have shown large numbers believe Rousseff herself was responsible for the corruption scandal.
This is, in part, because the media has gone to great lengths in trying to portray the governing Workers’ Party as a corrupt, bureaucratic party that has poorly managed the state company.
Lincoln Secco, an historian and Workers’ Party expert from the University of Sao Paulo, told teleSUR in 2015 that the media plays a key role in the current situation by exclusively targeting the Workers’ Party and not necessarily the government’s right-wing allies.
“Scandals involving the PT (Workers’ Party) are shown every day on television. (But) there is barely any criticism to the PMDB government in Sao Paulo,” he explains.
However, the investigations so far into the Petrobras corruption scheme show that politicians from many parties – not only the Workers’ Party – were involved in the illegal network, including some from the main opposition party, PSDB, and others from former presidential candidate Marina Silva’s Socialist Party.
As the chart above shows, most of the politicians participating in the scheme come from the right-wing Progressive Party.
But the focus remains on the Workers’ Party. The raid of Lula’s home came just a few days after he said he could be a candidate in the 2018 presidential election. With many believing that Rousseff has been fatally wounded by the baseless allegations, will Lula increasingly become the right’s target?