Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CORRUPTION-BRAZIL: Lula and the PT Struggling for Survival

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 12 2005 (IPS) - In a nationwide address on Friday, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva apologised to the Brazilian people and said he felt "betrayed" by the individuals responsible for the corruption scandal that is threatening to topple his government and the Workers Party (PT).

"I am indignant over the revelations that emerge every day," exposing "unacceptable practices of which I was never aware," Lula stated in his address before entering a full cabinet meeting in Brasilia.

He added that the PT and the government must "ask for forgiveness," effectively avoiding any personal responsibility in the matter.

Lula’s brief address was criticised by opposition leaders and even some PT members as an "insufficient" response to the gravity of the allegations that have plagued his administration and the Brazilian Congress since June.

PT president Tarso Genro acknowledged this insufficiency but stressed that it was merely "the first of a series of statements."

Genro made his comments at a press conference in Rio de Janeiro, after a meeting with local party leaders to discuss the "refounding" of the PT.

Yet more fuel was added to the fire of the ongoing crisis on Thursday, when Duda Mendonça, who has headed up the PT’s election campaigns since 2001, confessed that he had received 15.5 million reals (6.5 million dollars) in illegal, undeclared campaign financing, of which two-thirds was channelled through a bank account in the Bahamas, a Caribbean tax haven.

This revelation reinforces suspicions that Lula’s 2002 electoral victory was helped along by illegal funds. Worse still, it could indicate that the PT received foreign financing, which would be grounds for the party to be disbanded under Brazilian law.

Some members of opposition parties have revived talk of seeking Lula’s impeachment as a means of overcoming the crisis, although most remain hesitant to take this step, given the president’s continued popularity and the danger of sparking an economic crisis.

Moreover, many legal experts have pointed out that there is not enough evidence of Lula’s direct responsibility to justify an impeachment hearing, a fact that was also highlighted by the president of the PT.

Genro announced that the PT "will mobilise its social support base to defend the president" if impeachment procedures are initiated.

"It would be cowardly not to do so," he said, although he recognised that rallying forces around Lula could be difficult, since many activists feel baffled and disillusioned by the mounting evidence of party corruption and the policies that have been adopted by the Lula administration since it took power.

Genro said that the government would undertake actions to motivate support, such as more effective anti-corruption measures and political reforms aimed at eliminating the causes of illegal "parallel financing" of election campaigns.

In his view, the main target of the opposition, which is "legitimately" taking advantage of the crisis, is not Lula himself, but rather the PT.

"More than removing the president, what they want is to destroy the PT," he maintained, although he added that it would be "beastly" to outlaw a party that has contributed so much to Brazil’s democratic process.

No one has demanded the outlawing of the Catholic Church because of a few paedophilic priests, he argued.

He recognised, however, that the current situation is "extremely serious."

The congressional inquiry commissions established to delve into the various allegations of corruption, along with the investigations undertaken by the federal police, have uncovered "a much broader and more complex system than imagined" of illegal campaign financing with international involvement, he noted.

The scandal broke out in May when lawmaker Roberto Jefferson, the head of the Brazilian Labour Party (PTB), a PT ally, was accused of corruption in the state-run postal service.

In response, Jefferson told the press on Jun. 6 that the PT had bribed legislators from the Liberal Party (PL) and the Progressive Party (PP) to support government-sponsored bills, with monthly payments from 2003 to early 2005.

If these allegations are confirmed, Lula’s PT government built its majority in Congress on corrupt foundations, purchasing the votes of the conservative PL, PP and PTB parties – which would throw into question the legitimacy of major reforms adopted in the past two years, like the modification of the social security system.

A flood of denunciations strengthened the claims made by Jefferson, who is known for his ability to adapt to whichever party is in power.

According to Genro, the wrongdoings of the PT – which have led to the resignation of a number of its top leaders and cabinet ministers – resulted from "symbiosis" with the government and "overly pragmatic" policies for forging alliances. Moreover, the weakness of internal control mechanisms permitted an abuse of power and excessive autonomy on the part of some party leaders, he added.

Genro was designated PT president in July, after his predecessor, José Genoino, stepped down in the midst of the current crisis. He now faces the daunting task of ensuring the party’s survival and subsequently rebuilding it.

The crisis has further exacerbated previously existing internal disputes, with just over a month to go before the election of the party’s new national leadership, which had already been scheduled for Sept. 18.

For the first time, the PT leadership will be directly elected by the more than 800,000 members of the party.

The PT is facing the additional difficulty of financial collapse, owing to an accumulation of debts over the last several election campaigns, some of which were not declared. The payment of these debts has been used as justification for the illegal funding mechanisms employed by the former party leaders forced to step down by the scandal.

On Thursday, in the wake of the revelations made by campaign manager Mendonça, 20 deputies and four senators from the PT announced that they would no longer follow the party’s positions, and would instead form an independent faction promoting profound changes in party alliances and economic policies.

Despite these signs of dissent, Genro does not believe the PT is in danger of falling apart. The dissident lawmakers, who represent the most left-leaning sectors of the PT, should join existing far-left forces like the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) and the Unified Socialist Workers Party, he said.

As for Lula, it appears that his seemingly untouchable popularity is finally feeling the effects of the ongoing scandal.

A survey released Friday by the daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo indicated that the proportion of respondents who gave his government a positive mark dropped from 35 percent in late May to 31 percent, while the proportion who rated it negatively rose from 18 percent to 26 percent.

And for the first time ever, the poll results pointed to the possibility that Lula could lose the next presidential elections if he were to face the mayor of Sao Paulo, José Serra – who he defeated at the polls in October 2002 – in a run-off. According to the latest survey, 48 percent of those interviewed said they would vote for Serra and only 39 percent for Lula.

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