Lula's support for tarnished ex-president a sad case of realpolitik


LETTER FROM BRAZIL: José Sarney’s backing for President Lula may wind up costing the ruling party dearly

JOSÉ SARNEY is one of Brazil’s leading statesmen. A former president, he is the man who oversaw the country’s transition from 25 years of military dictatorship to freedom, calling up the assembly that drew up the democratic constitution that guarantees the liberties which Brazilians enjoy today.

Much to his well-disguised irritation, most Brazilians do not see him in this light, but as a member of the almost extinct class of coronels – not military men, but local bigwigs from the backlands, whose corrupt political power mixes paternalism with authoritarianism.

He is remembered as an enthusiastic supporter of the military dictatorship until jumping ship as it meandered towards a close. He only rose to the presidency because the man selected by the military’s rigged electoral college died before he could take office.

As president his rule was marked by incompetence and scandal. Such was his unpopularity on leaving office in 1990 that he did not even trust the voters of his rural fiefdom of Maranhão to vote him into the senate.

Instead he ran for the new jungle state of Amapá, whose voters sent him back to Brasília in thanks for his decision to grant them statehood in 1988.

In the senate since then he has, true to his coronel roots, supported whoever is in power in return for a steady flow of political patronage, with which he sustains his political machine.

But he can be an embarrassing ally, as President Lula has recently found out. A scandal about rampant abuse of expense accounts by senators recently came to focus on the role of Sarney, now in his third stint as the senate’s president.

Weeks of press revelations have exposed nepotism, cronyism, and influence peddling. Then the scandal became the senator’s defence after evidence emerged that Sarney lied in the senate when rejecting the allegations.

It was on the senate floor that Sarney likened the press revelations against him to a “Nazi-like persecution”, before noting that “thankfully, in Brazil we do not have gas chambers”.

But most Brazilians have a hard time seeing Sarney as the persecuted party. In one of the most egregious cases of censorship since the end of the dictatorship, the senator searched through his contacts in the judiciary and found an obscure judge linked to his family. The judge supplied an injunction prohibiting the O Estado de S Paulo newspaper from publishing details of police inquiries into the odious business activities of Sarney’s son.

Brazilians have been little surprised by the revelations about Sarney, but disgusted nonetheless, and polls show they want him chased from the senate’s presidency at the very least. The opposition tried as much but came up against a formidable obstacle – President Lula.

Once upon a time, Lula’s Workers’ Party stood for ethics in public life and won much support among well-off members of the middle class because of its stand against corruption. Lula, in his previous incarnation as a leftist firebrand, would have denounced Sarney as a corrupto and thief.

But that was then, this is now.

Sarney is one of the big beasts in the Democratic Movement of Brazil (known as the PMDB after its Portuguese acronym), the biggest party in Lula’s ruling coalition. Without the party’s support, life for Lula would be far more difficult.

Lula wants the PMDB to back his chosen candidate to succeed him, his chief-of-staff Dilma Rousseff. This tough and able administrator has little support of her own in the Workers’ Party and has something of a charisma deficit in a country that prizes cordiality highly among the social graces. Without the PMDB she would be a hard sell to the electorate, but feed the PMDB base with sufficient patronage and she becomes a formidable candidate.

Consequently, Lula organised Sarney’s defence, dressing it up in the fig-leaf of defending the senate’s honour as an institution. Most senators from his Workers’ Party held their noses and voted as told. But some could not, and one has since left the party.

The opposition declared the Workers’ Party’s rescue of Sarney was the end of any claim it might have to be the party that stands for ethics in Brazilian public life.

However, they were also once Sarney’s allies, and many in their ranks are as corrupt and as venal as he.

Lula has used the support of the PMDB to run one of Brazil’s best administrations in decades. In power for seven years, he has shown himself to be the grand master of Brazil’s political game.

But many of his supporters once believed, as he once appeared to, that a vote for Lula was a vote to do away with the game as played by the PMDB, not a vote to save Sarney.