Lula’s attempted return shows Rousseff’s weakness

Mutual self-interest rather than patriotism is main reason to bring back ex-president
A protestor holds caricatures of Lula da Silva and Rousseff beside Rio's Copacabana beach this week © AFP

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Who is actually in charge in Brazil? Last week it seemed to be Dilma Rousseff, the country’s hapless president. Last weekend, it looked to be the people, as an estimated 3m protesters marched in Brazil’s largest ever anti-government demonstration to demand Ms Rousseff’s impeachment on corruption charges. Then, on Wednesday, it seemed that it was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula as he is known.

The charismatic former president rejoined the government, at Ms Rousseff’s invitation, to act as her chief of staff — a key power-broking position that plays to his reputation as an irresistible negotiator and all-round political whizz.

But a day later, just as Mr Lula da Silva was being sworn in, a federal judge issued an injunction to suspend his appointment. Whether or not Judge Itagiba Catta Preta Neto’s ruling is upheld, the fact it was issued reflects how tenuous both Ms Rousseff’s and Mr Lula da Silva’s position have become. To fully appreciate that, one has to wind back the clock to Wednesday morning.

In his new role, Mr Lula da Silva would have, in effect, ended Ms Rousseff’s presidency. “In practice, Lula’s third term as president has begun,” wrote Eduardo Solese, a columnist at Folha de S.Paulo, the leading daily. “Dilma will have to get used to it.”

But why did Ms Rousseff invite her own political immolation? Cynical self-protection is as plausible a motivation as the multifarious roles she wanted him to perform.

Ostensibly, Mr Lula da Silva had four tasks. First, like a co-pilot who takes over an aircraft in a nose-dive, he would take control of the joystick from Ms Rousseff, Brazil’s least popular president ever. He would then resume contact with ground control by bringing the government’s most important coalition allies fully on board.

That would help stabilise the plane — and protect Ms Rousseff — as stronger coalition support would help fend off her impeachment. Lastly, Mr Lula da Silva would navigate the aircraft through Brazil’s worst economic turbulence since the 1930s and land it safely in time for the 2018 elections. Stabilising the economy is not entirely implausible; he dispelled market doubts when he first won the presidency in 2002.

But mutual self-interest rather than patriotism may be the bigger reason for his appointment.

Mr Lula da Silva faces separate money-laundering and corruption allegations. On Wednesday, protests flared up after secret police phone recordings of a conversation with Ms Rousseff fuelled accusations his appointment was a ruse to protect him from arrest.

The key point here is that, as a minister, Mr Lula da Silva can be tried only by the Supreme Court. That does not offer him guaranteed escape from the judicial process, but it may slow it down. Such cynical manoeuvring, strongly denied by Brasília, is why street protests erupted again on Thursday.

Ms Rousseff, after in effect orchestrating a coup against herself, has — without apparent irony — called Mr Lula da Silva’s suspension “the screamings of those trying to pull off a coup d’état”.

Investors, uncertain as to what to make of it all, have generally turned on their heels. Brazil was already suffering from the drop in commodity prices and the hangover of a credit boom. But fast-growing economies such as Chile, Colombia and Peru, which have suffered much the same pressures, show happier outcomes. Rather, Brazil’s distinguishing problem is the anti-corruption drive at Petrobras and other institutions.

As a result, many mainstream politicians are now in disgrace and nearly all are unpopular. Over the weekend, even the opposition leader was booed.

The depth and scope of Brazil’s corruption purge, led by apolitical judges, has scant parallel elsewhere. It holds out the promise of a better way of doing things. That new order may be stillborn. Meanwhile, the old one is going down in a brawl.

johnpaul.rathbone@ft.com

This story has been updated to reflect more recent developments

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