Rousseff faces growing calls to step down

Deepening political corruption crisis threatens Brazil’s president and Workers’ party
Protesters in São Paulo © Reuters

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President Dilma Rousseff is facing growing calls to step down, amid a deepening political crisis in Brazil that threatens not just the former Marxist guerrilla’s hold on power but the 13-year ascendancy of the ruling Workers’ party.

The battle, over a sweeping corruption investigation at Petrobras, the state oil group, has put the government at odds with judges and the police as well as wider public opinion, with tensions mounting over the weekend.

After Congress kicked off efforts to impeach Ms Rousseff, and prosecutors sought the arrest of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her mentor and predecessor as president, research published by Datafolha, a polling group, showed the depths of her unpopularity. A poll said a record 68 per cent of Brazilians support Congress’s impeachment drive — up from 60 per cent in February.

The lower house of Congress began the push in earnest on Thursday after months of delays, approving a committee to study allegations that Ms Rousseff fiddled the country’s accounts to increase election spending — allegations she denies. Meanwhile, Mr Lula da Silva’s lawyers vowed on Sunday to fight a decision by a Supreme Court judge to strip the ex-president of a new and controversial role in Ms Rousseff’s cabinet.

Justice Gilmar Mendes suspended Mr Lula da Silva’s appointment as chief of staff late on Friday on suspicions that he was only given a ministerial role to protect him from arrest. 

Tensions also grew between the government and the federal police after Eugênio Aragão, justice minister, threatened to remove federal police teams from investigations, including the task force investigating corruption at Petrobras. 

“If there is even a hint that information has been leaked from one of our agents, the whole team will be changed and I don’t need proof — the federal police is under our supervision,” Mr Aragão said in an interview published in Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo newspaper on Saturday. The comments prompted a backlash from police associations which said the threat to dismantle the corruption task force without proof was a direct attack on police autonomy. 

The government has also assailed the state prosecutors who requested Mr Lula da Silva’s arrest on money laundering charges this month in connection to a penthouse apartment at the centre of the Petrobras scandal.

The prosecutors allege the apartment was built for the ex-president, who brought the Workers party to power in 2003, by the construction group OAS, which is suspected of using apartments in the building as bribes. Mr Lula da Silva has denied any wrongdoing and OAS has declined to comment. 

Shortly after the arrest request was handed to Sérgio Moro, the federal judge leading the Petrobras investigation, Ms Rousseff appointed Mr Lula da Silva as her new chief of staff, affording him immunity from Mr Moro and all lower courts.

In a dramatic twist Mr Moro released a series of recordings of the ex-president’s intercepted phone calls on the night before his swearing-in ceremony. In one of the recordings, Ms Rousseff tells her predecessor that she will send him a document confirming his new ministerial role and that he should use it “only if it is necessary”. 

Opposition politicians said the conversation proved that the appointment was being used as a form of “get out of jail free” card and constituted an obstruction of justice. Justice Mendes of the Supreme Court also cited the conversation on Friday in his justification for suspending Mr Lula da Silva’s ministerial post. 

The release of the recordings sparked angry protests, both by anti-government demonstrators and supporters of the Workers’ party who accused the judge of impartiality and being part of an opposition-backed coup. 

In some of the other intercepted calls Mr Lula da Silva is also heard calling the Supreme Court “cowardly” and threatening to put the federal police and prosecutors “back in their place”, prompting a backlash across the country’s judiciary and pushing the country closer to a constitutional crisis.

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