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Brazil: The Politics of Policing Corruption

4 MINS READMar 4, 2016 | 20:25 GMT
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was detained by police March 4.
(NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Early March 4, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his close friend and political ally, businessman Paulo Okamotto, were detained for questioning in the 24th phase of the country's anti-corruption probe, known as Lava Jato. Da Silva and Okamotto were both later released and will meet with leaders from the ruling Workers' Party (PT) today in Sao Paulo to discuss the detention, any possible future indictments, and the consequence for the party and for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. 

Da Silva contends that the allegations that he took kickbacks from oil companies during his term as president are politically motivated and meant to block him from running again for president in 2018. He has vowed to continue with his campaign, and his supporters have vowed to continue backing him, planning a march to be held in the next couple of days. However, today's events were not aimed solely at da Silva. Authorities acted on more than 33 search warrants and detained 11 people in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Bahia and are examining widespread allegations of corruption and money laundering linked to state-owned energy company Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras).

There are fears, however, that da Silva's detainment was largely a power play. Earlier this week, Rousseff replaced Minister of Justice Jose Eduardo Cardoso, who headed up the corruption investigation, alleging that Cardoso had lost control of the investigation. Some in the government interpreted the move as an attempt to stop the corruption inquiry altogether. The detention of da Silva so soon after could be a bid by the federal police and prosecutors to prove that they are serious about moving forward with the anti-corruption campaign, despite Cardoso's replacement.

Regardless, the move has important political ramifications. There is currently an impeachment campaign against Rousseff for her purported role in the Petrobras scandal. As the former president, da Silva is one of Rouseff's biggest political allies. He is also the top contender in the 2018 presidential election, and he routinely advises Rousseff on tax policies and political strategy. Therefore, there is fear that da Silva's detainment, and possible indictment, could add impetus to the pro-impeachment movement, including anti-Rousseff protests scheduled for March 13. Though the scandal does not signal an automatic loss for the PT in 2018, it is still an indication of the party's decline.

Also of concern is the possibility that PT allies, worried about the party's fate, will break from it. The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, one of the PT's biggest political allies, will have its annual meeting March 12. If the outlook for the ruling party has not improved by then, the PT may lose support at a sensitive time. Leaders are very aware that the way the public – and particularly the parties' low-income support base – reacts will in large part determine the future of the PT and thus the outcome of the 2018 presidential elections. PT allies also are keenly aware that if da Silva does not run for the presidency, their candidates may have a chance to win office.

Rousseff will likely lose more political allies in Congress as the impeachment process progresses, allies she needs if she hopes to stop the campaign against her. To stop the impeachment from passing in the lower house, she needs 172 votes of support. Put simply, political instability in Brazil will worsen, as officials align with or against da Silva and Rousseff. It remains unclear exactly how alliances will form and shift, but one thing is certain: The PT and every major party and political organization in the country is poised to react to whatever comes next.  

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