Lula Convicted: End of an Era?

By Anthony W. Pereira*

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Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva / Jeso Carneiro / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s conviction last week on corruption charges was more than a legal decision and could mark a political watershed – the beginning of the end of “Lula-ism,” a political and redistributive pact that lasted from 2003 until 2010 which Lula has been offering to revive as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections.  On July 12, Federal Judge Sergio Moro found Lula guilty of taking a bribe and laundering money, sentenced him to nine years and six months in prison, and banned him from taking public office for seven years.  This judgment, the first to convict an ex-president in Brazil, was the result of the Carwash anti-corruption investigations begun in March 2014.

  • The decision will be appealed to the Federal court for the Fourth Region in Porto Alegre. This court will probably rule on the case before the 2018 filing deadline for presidential candidates (yet to be decided, but usually in mid-August), and is expected to uphold the conviction.  Lula would be legally barred from being a candidate at that point, although he might mount some sort of challenge to such a ruling.  Lula’s strategy for now is to press on with his campaign, to criticize his conviction as political persecution that was not based on evidence, and to portray himself as a man of the people capable of taking on the “elite.”

Lula still has great strengths.  The basis of Lula-ism has been his personal appeal – he captured twice as many voters as did his political party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in 2002 and 2006 – boosted by economic forces and public policies that raised the living standards of the poor.  With his finely-tuned ability to communicate to ordinary people, he showed that it was possible to both grow the economy and redistribute its fruits.  His government reduced poverty significantly, offered the poor inclusion in the consumer society and the chance of social mobility, and even achieved a modest reduction in income inequality – while promoting the interests of big companies.

  • But he may not have achieved the long-term realignment his supporters claim. Lula-ism proper only lasted for eight years, the length of his two presidential terms.  His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, ruled for almost six more years, but by the last year of her first term, poverty had stopped declining.  The current government of President Michel Temer has passed a constitutional amendment freezing federal spending in real terms for 20 years; the measure does not automatically reduce spending on social programs, but in the absence of tax increases that is what it has produced.  Temer’s own bribery scandal may take him down, perhaps within the next couple of weeks, but his policies raise a more fundamental question:  whether Brazil can return to economic redistribution, diminishing the severe inequality that still marks its society, without Lula-ism.

The organs of anti-corruption investigation and control that have challenged Lula, Dilma, and Temer – the media, the Federal Police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the judiciary – are neither consistently politically neutral nor free of corruption themselves.  They are not a Deus ex machina that can free the Brazilian polity of corruption all by themselves.  For that, Brazil needs political reform, further changes in at least some of the rules that regulate elections and governance, a realignment of incentives faced by elected officials, state bureaucrats, business people, trade unions, and the electorate.

  • The PT and the other two most important parties, however, seem incapable of renovation despite leaders’ awareness of the low level of legitimacy with which they are viewed by voters. The PT has few viable new leaders and is clinging to Lula’s candidacy as its only hope of a return to power.  The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) still nominally supports Temer.  And Temer’s own party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), is torn between defending the president in an act of self-preservation, and fearing the wrath of the voters in 2018.

Brazilians face a “trilemma”: they yearn for the three long hoped-for goals of sustained and successful anti-corruption investigations, political reform, and a return to economic redistribution.  Achieving two of those goals at the same time, let alone three, seems impossible.  The 2018 elections therefore will reveal a country in which anti-corruption investigations continue to knock major figures out of the political game, while political reform and economic redistribution are postponed.  The old cliché that Brazil is the country of the future takes on a new meaning in light of this somber possibility.

July 17, 2017

*Anthony W. Pereira is a Professor and Director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.

Brazil: Sacrificing Anti-Poverty Success?

By Hayley Jones*

Bolsa Familia

Photo Credit: Senado Federal / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s flagship antipoverty program, the Bolsa Família, faces an uncertain future as the government of Interim President Michel Temer confronts adverse economic and political circumstances.  The program, which provides direct cash benefits to poor households on the condition that children fulfill education and health-related targets, was an important factor in Brazil’s progress on poverty and inequality since the early 2000s – between 2001 and 2013 the poverty headcount ratio declined from 24.7 percent to 8.9 percent, and the Gini coefficient declined from 59.3 to 52.9.  The Bolsa Família (formerly called Bolsa Escola) was a pioneer in the use of cash transfers in social policy in the 1990s.  The idea is enticingly simple: the cash allows families to meet immediate needs, while the education and health conditions ensure poor children are better equipped to lift themselves out of poverty in the long run.  Under Presidents Lula and Dilma, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) put the policy at the heart of its platform, and reaped advantages at the polls with the expansion of coverage and benefits.  The program now reaches about one-quarter of the population.

The social gains made in part thanks to the Bolsa Família may now be at risk.  Brazil has been hit hard by the collapse of commodity and oil prices over the last two years and is currently experiencing what is predicted to be the country’s worst recession since the 1930s.  GDP fell by roughly 4 percent in 2015 and is expected to do the same in 2016.  The deep political crisis gripping the country since earlier this year further threatens the program.  Temer, his party (PMDB), and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles have stressed the need to cut spending to reduce the deficit.  While many areas of social spending, such as pensions and education, are protected in the budget under the 1988 Constitution,  the Bolsa Família is not.  With the large political constituency benefitting from the program, there is likely little appetite in the interim government to ax the program altogether.  In fact, at the end of June Temer announced a 12.5 percent increase to the Bolsa Família – more than the 9 percent promised by Dilma – to compensate for inflation.  But he also emphasized that benefits should be temporary and that there is a need to focus on exit doors from the program.  Social Development Minister, Osmar Terra, has suggested that the program could be made more efficient and costs cut by 10 percent.

Temer may not be entirely wrong to highlight the need for exit strategies, but they should be exit strategies from poverty rather than from the Bolsa Família itself.  There is so far little evidence that it has done much to change the life trajectories of poor young people that would allow them to move out of poverty. The emphasis on increased school enrollment and attendance as transformative obscures much deeper problems, including poor school progression and completion rates in low-quality schools, a lack of educational infrastructure and resources, poorly trained teachers, and outdated curricula, among others.  If Temer is serious about moving beneficiaries out of poverty and the program, priority will have to be given to correcting regressive spending in public education (which prioritizes higher over basic education); better aligning curricula with labor market demand; and addressing the poor job opportunities for low- and semi-skilled workers. Economic realities and the rhetoric on efficiency and exit strategies do not bode well for such changes.  Under Temer, the Bolsa Família seems likely be limited to a policy tool for risk insurance and meeting basic needs rather than a platform for extending the social gains of the last decade.

July 12, 2016

*Hayley Jones is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.  Her thesis examines long-term poverty reduction in the Bolsa Família program.

Brazil: Daring to Look at Succession Scenarios

By Silvio Levcovitz*

Lava Jato

Photo Credits: Instituto Liberal (Brasil) and Brasil 247 / Google Images / Labeled for noncommercial reuse

Brazil’s snowballing scandals are generating a high level of uncertainty regarding the country’s political future.  “Operation Car Wash”—a two-year investigation by a task force of the Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutors—has already led to the conviction and 20-year imprisonment of several senior officials from Petrobras and prominent construction companies, and others are likely to follow.  In Brazil, congressmen, cabinet ministers, and the President can be criminally charged only by the Supreme Court, through a long, difficult process called “privileged forum.”  On March 17, former President Lula, under investigation for allegedly receiving two properties as a bribe from construction companies, was designated a Minister of State in President Dilma Rousseff’s administration, an appointment that would have afforded him that protection.  The judge pursuing him released a recording of a call from Dilma offering him immunity as well as Lula’s calls on family and other private matters.  Many in the Brazilian legal community have disapproved of the judge’s disclosure of the calls as disrespecting the rule of law and the right to privacy, but the damage to Dilma and Lula was done.

Calls for the President’s impeachment are surging—and she repeatedly rejects the pressure to resign.  On Sunday, March 13, a half-million people protested in São Paulo, and the press estimates that another 1-2 million demonstrated elsewhere around the country.  (Demonstrations supporting Dilma have attracted 100,000 citizens in São Paulo.)  The PMDB, party of Vice-President Michel Temer and President of the House Eduardo Cunha, is officially quitting the government this week, and other minor parties appear likely to do the same, definitely cracking the presidential support.  The impeachment process in Brazil has two steps.  In the House, two-thirds of its 513 members (342 votes) are required for “admission” or approval, in which case the Senate can decide by majority vote to take up the charges, resulting in the President being suspended for up to 180 days.  Conviction requires the votes of two thirds of the 81 senators.  Although press reports indicate the mood is for the impeachment, the government is offering positions and funds individually to Congressmen and in hopes of achieving a low turnout to stop the process in the House.

Predicting the outcome of such a volatile situation is inherently risky, but discussion of post-Dilma scenarios is growing increasingly common.  Should she step down or be removed from office, Vice-President Michel Temer would be her constitutional successor.  Like Dilma, however, Temer is being charged by the Superior Electoral Court on suspicion of illegal campaign financing and, if convicted, would not be allowed to take office.  The next two in line to succeed her—President of the House Eduardo Cunha and President of the Senate Renan Calheiros—have been snagged by Operation Car Wash and face charges by the Supreme Court, suggesting that they too could be disqualified.  (The Federal Attorney General has already asked the Supreme Court to issue a preventive order to remove Cunha because of evidence that he has received US$5 million in secret Swiss bank accounts, without any justification.)  That leaves Supreme Court President Ricardo Lewandowski as a possible successor for a maximum period of 90 days, at which point elections would be called.  As Brazil faces crisis after crisis, the press have taken to commenting that the country’s fast-paced, dramatic events make the American series House of Cards look slow and boring. 

March 30, 2016

* Silvio Levcovitz is a CLALS Fellow and political science PhD candidate at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas, São Paulo.  He has been a public lawyer in Brazil and is researching criminal cases of corruption and civil claims of administrative misconduct from 1991 to 2014.

Brazil: Not-so-Happy New Year

By Matthew Taylor*

Brazil Basta

Photo Credit: Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira / Flickr / Creative Commons

A vicious combination of corruption scandal and economic malaise suggests a troubled new year awaits Brazil.  Economists estimate gross domestic product has contracted 3 percent this year and will decline a similar amount in 2016, while inflation and weak government finances hamper efforts to stimulate growth.  Two of three big rating agencies have cut Brazilian debt from investment grade to junk. Unemployment has risen from under 7 percent a year ago to nearly 10 percent, with forecasts of 12 percent on the horizon.  Efforts to reform fiscal policy are getting nowhere, and the champion of fiscal reform, Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, has just resigned.  The bonanza launched by the 2003-2010 presidency of Lula da Silva – seemingly setting Brazil on a unique path of state capitalist development – is long over.

The country’s interconnected scandals cast shadows on many of the leading players on the national stage, including President Dilma Rousseff.

  • Petrobras, the crown jewel of Brazil’s state capitalist model, is at the center of allegedly massive corruption schemes. Rousseff, who was chair of the Petrobras board at the time of the alleged wrongdoing, has claimed absolute ignorance.  But the charges implicate Brazil’s leading political and business elites, many of whom have been jailed in recent months.
  • A feud between Dilma and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, reached a new low this month after Cunha’s approval of impeachment proceedings against her. (His own ethics problems continue to fester.)  The charge against Dilma is not of personal corruption but rather that Rousseff flouted budget laws by using public banks to cover up unauthorized debt issuance and off-books spending.  Rousseff supporters have argued that the impeachment charges represent the worst of golpismo, or coup-mongering, and a constitutional overreach that threatens to undermine democracy.

For Brazil, 2016 will be dramatic and unpredictable – as the country weathers the most dangerous political crisis since the impeachment and resignation of President Fernando Collor in 1992.  Dilma’s opponents will have difficulty convincing two-thirds of the Chamber and Senate to oust her, but the crisis is already creating significant fissures in the democratic system.  The parties have been turned upside down.  Even if Dilma survives in office, she faces nearly impossible odds in restoring the credibility of her administration and party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT.  There are early indications that the PT will face a bloodletting in the 2016 municipal elections, and former President Lula, the party’s once-ironclad standard-bearer, has the highest rejection rate (55 percent) of any potential candidate in the 2018 presidential contest.  The PMDB, Dilma’s coalition partner, is threatening to break with the government, but is internally divided. The opposition PSDB is facing scandals, protests, and troubles of its own in the states it governs.  The newfound proactivity of prosecutors and judges is making democratic checks and balances work as never before – and is largely welcomed by Brazilians – but Brazil’s old party system may not be able to keep pace.  Rumblings for a rethinking of the political system will grow louder in the new year, as the crisis deepens.

December 21, 2015

*Matthew M. Taylor is associate professor at the School of International Service at American University.