Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff lashed out at critics of her government’s management of Petrobras for the first time on Monday, saying the state-owned oil company was the target of a malicious political campaign.

Ms Rousseff said Petrobras, which opposition politicians want investigated for corruption ahead of a presidential election this year, had thrived under the near 12-year rule of her centre-left Workers’ party (PT).

“We cannot permit, as Brazilians who love and defend this country, for individual and isolated cases, even if they are serious, to be used to destroy the image of our biggest company,” she said at a ceremony to launch a Brazilian-made oil services vessel.

Brazil’s opposition is seeking to use controversy surrounding Petrobras, which is accused of accepting bribes and inflating the value of projects, to try to put a dent in Ms Rousseff’s overwhelming lead in opinion polls for presidential elections due in October.

The opposition wants to expand probes by police and regulatory authorities into a full congressional inquiry into the company while the government and its political allies have rejected the proposal as a politically motivated witch hunt.

“Petrobras will never be stained with any wrongdoing,” Ms Rousseff said on Monday. “Whatever needs to be investigated will be investigated with maximum rigour.”

Analysts say although Ms Rousseff’s government has slipped in the polls, with voters saying her government is good or excellent falling from 41 per cent to 36 per cent in March compared with February, she remains the favourite in the elections.

“While Rousseff’s drop in approval ratings reinforces our expectation that this election is likely to go to a second-round run-off, we continue to assess her odds of winning at 70 per cent,” Eurasia Group said in a recent note.

To sustain her lead, she will need to fight inflation, which is hovering near the top of the central bank’s target range of 4.5 per cent plus or minus 2 percentage points and blunt the attacks on Petrobras, analysts say.

As the former chairman of Petrobras until she contested elections in 2010, any findings of wrongdoing at the company could damage her reputation among voters for clean and competent management.

The government and its allies have mounted a strong counterattack on attempts to launch a congressional inquiry focusing on Petrobras alone by proposing to investigate not only the oil company but other scandals involving opposition politicians, such as a scam involving São Paulo commuter rail projects.

Ms Rousseff on Monday also attacked accusations in the stock market that her government and that of her predecessor, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had destroyed the value of Petrobras through an unofficial policy of forcing it to sell imported petrol below international prices to try to control inflation.

Petrobras shares have fallen 60 per cent in five years while the index representing the stock market in general, the Bovespa, is up 13.60 per cent over the same period.

But Ms Rousseff said measuring from the start of Mr Lula da Silva’s eight-year term in 2003, successive PT governments had increased the market value of Petrobras by more than six times to R$98bn.

“They manipulate data, distort their analyses and deliberately disregard global problems in the oil market,” she said of the company’s critics.

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