Rousseff tries to ride out the storm amid loud calls for impeachment

Plunging popularity, corruption claims and policy drift spell trouble for Brazil’s leader

Brazil’s President Dilma Roussef has become more isolated than ever in the presidential palace. Photograph: Carlos Pazos/Reuters

Brazil’s President Dilma Roussef has become more isolated than ever in the presidential palace. Photograph: Carlos Pazos/Reuters

 

Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff is in deep trouble.

Though she has barely started her second term after securing re-election last October, she already finds herself facing growing calls for her impeachment.

These were first heard almost immediately after she won re-election last October but were largely confined to the sort of far-right politician who likes to show up for rallies sporting a handgun.

But the calls are spreading into increasingly respectable opinion as Brazil faces a perfect storm of water shortages, power cuts and government-imposed austerity with poverty on the rise.

As hardships accumulate, the country’s mood is darkening. Rousseff’s popularity has cratered since her victory in October. Her approval rating has dropped from 42 to just 23 per cent while those who consider her performance bad or terrible stands at 44 per cent.

These are the worst poll numbers for a president since 1999. Even former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is briefing against Rousseff. Lula, well-informed journalists now report, is increasingly exacerbated with his protege – her stubbornness, her refusal to engage and the complete disrespect she has shown for his foreign policy legacy.

Coup-mongering

Fernando Henrique Cardoso

The immediate basis for the calls is the metastasising corruption scandal at state-controlled oil giant Petrobras. The bill for treating Brazil’s biggest company as a cash dispenser for politicians and their pals in the business community could come in north of €20 billion.

Given that Rousseff has held a large measure of responsibility for the company since 2003, that level of criminal incompetence could be legally considered impeachable, even if she is not named by federal prosecutors among the politicians involved. She will be even more vulnerable if it is proved some of the money robbed from Petrobras ended up financing one of her two presidential campaigns.

She denies all accusations as does her Workers Party. But its leadership increasingly sounds disorientated by the whole affair, denying wrongdoing but then claiming that corruption at Petrobras started before it came to power in 2003 which has been interpreted as “we didn’t start it”.

This is, after all, the same party that promises to expel any members convicted of wrongdoing while still referring to three former leaders convicted and jailed in the previous mensalão scandal as “warriors of the people”.

The government is scrambling to try and undermine the work of prosecutors conducting the Petrobras investigation, moves that have already led a former supreme court head to call for Rousseff to sack her justice minister after it was revealed he has been holding secret meetings with lawyers from the accused companies.

Though constitutional, impeachment remains a supremely political measure, here also Rousseff is vulnerable. Though she ran as the anti-austerity candidate in October, she is now implementing the very policy she accused her opponents of wanting to unleash on Brazil.

Fiscal prudence might be required to restore the books after the profligacy of her first term. However, considering the speed with which she abandoned her campaign pledges it is little wonder the recent opinion poll found 47 per cent of Brazilians consider her dishonest and 54 per cent false. That increases her vulnerability as the vultures circle. An unpopular president is far easier to turf out of office.

Promised dialogue

The defeat of her chosen candidate by supposed allies clearly signalled that despite on paper having a huge congressional majority she cannot rely on it. Her coalition might dominate the legislature but its largest component is now a rival, if not already her main opposition. And it is congress which must vote for impeachment.

To try and encourage it to do so, marches are now being organised across Brazil. But even if like Cardoso in 1999 she rides out the storm, Rousseff will need to draw on hitherto unnoticed political skills to avoid emulating his second term when, weak and unpopular, he limped from one crisis to another, the epitome of a lame duck.

Though at least Cardoso had the consolation of a successful first term to look back on.

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