Brazil’s kingmaker on the edge

(Original aqui. Perdão antecipado pela impossibilidade de traduzir — falta de tempo.)

Brazil’s kingmaker on the edge
By Jonathan Wheatley in São Paulo

A simmering scandal in Brazil’s senate is likely to come to a head today when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is expected to meet José Sarney, president of the senate and a key figure in the governing coalition, to decide his political future.

If, as many expect, Mr Sarney – a former national president – resigns the senate presidency amid a spate of accusations of improper behaviour, he will leave Mr Lula da Silva facing a crisis of governability in the run-up to the 2010 general election, with the president entering the final stages of his second consecutive four-year term.

The danger for the government is that Mr Sarney’s departure would destabilise its majority in congress. Mr Lula da Silva – accustomed to a comfortable majority and huge popular support – has fought hard to avoid such an eventuality.

Analysts warn of at least three dangers for the government if Mr Sarney steps down. As a prominent leader of the PMDB, the biggest party in congress, he has been able to guarantee support for policy when it is needed.

The government’s legislative agenda would be in jeopardy; it would risk losing control of a senate inquiry into alleged wrongdoing at Petrobras, the government-controlled but publicly traded oil company; and backing for Dilma Rousseff, the president’s chosen candidate to succeed him after next year, would come under threat.

Mr Sarney’s office said last week that he had no intention of resigning the senate presidency. He could yet ride out the storm. Renan Calheiros, who held the office from 2005 to 2007, clung to power much longer before being forced out by scandal and, two years later, is one of the most powerful figures in the senate.

But after several weeks during which allegations of nepotism, influence-peddling and other misdeeds have been made almost daily against him and close members of his family, Mr Sarney seems ready to throw in the towel.

“I think he’s given up,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves, a political consultant in Brasília. “He is a former president of the republic with a proud history, and that’s all been thrown away in a few weeks.”

Media reports on Friday quoted Mr Sarney as telling colleagues: “I’m living through a Calvary – a kind of hell.”

The scandal centres on the revelation of several hundred “secret acts” – laws that were passed but not published by the senate over the past 15 years, granting jobs and other favours, many of them to family, friends and associates of the extensive Sarney clan.

Federal police have accused Mr Sarney’s son and daughter-in-law of crimes including forgery and money laundering.

Mr Sarney’s office denied all wrongdoing. His son’s office passed inquiries to his lawyer, who did not return calls asking for comment last week.

The PMDB is widely regarded as less of a national political party with a clear ideology than a loose collection of predominantly regional interests, and is notoriously lacking in unity. Although part of the ruling coalition, it exacts a price for its support in congress almost on a vote-by-vote basis. Some of its leaders side openly with the opposition; more often, members vote according to personal rather than party interests.

Mr Sarney is one of few people capable of delivering the support of most of the PMDB most of the time. “Lula knows that if you take Sarney out of the picture, there is really nobody to replace him,” said Mr Castro Neves.

Mr Lula da Silva cannot stand for a third consecutive term next year and Ms Rousseff – who lacks Mr Lula da Silva’s personal attractiveness in the eyes of millions of voters – has failed to make much impression on opinion polls. This is why the president has been anxious to secure the support of the PMDB and its ability to form alliances with almost any other party at local level.

Until last week, Mr Lula da Silva gave Mr Sarney his full support, saying he should not be treated like an ordinary person, and investigators should take account of his history.

But backing him has its price. Senators from Mr Lula da Silva’s leftwing PT have called on Mr Sarney to step down. Observers say supporting him in the face of an avalanche of damaging evidence would cost them votes when they stand for re-election next year.

Mr Lula da Silva appears to have reached a similar conclusion. Media reports said the president’s office had conducted research last week showing that protecting Mr Sarney was damaging the image not only of Mr Lula da Silva but also of Ms Rousseff. If so, the senator’s time may have come – leaving Mr Lula da Silva’s government navigating into uncertain waters.

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