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Ruling Party's Scandals Seem to Fizzle in Brazil

No major shake-ups are expected despite corruption inquiries. The public grows weary.

November 25, 2005|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — After five months of shocking revelations and often riveting testimony, one of the worst government corruption scandals in Brazilian history may simply end, as the saying here goes, in a pizza.

That means that the consequences don't amount to much, and at the end of the day, everyone slaps one another on the back and gets ready for a party and a little pie.

Three separate congressional investigations are examining allegations that the ruling Workers' Party bribed lawmakers to vote its way, that election campaigns were financed with slush funds and that some officials received kickbacks from the postal service.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's chief of staff has been forced to step down, his finance minister's fate has been cast into doubt, and a congressional deputy has been expelled.

A handful of representatives accused of corruption have resigned rather than face expulsion, but only because by resigning first they are allowed to run for office again in the next election. Lula's disgraced right-hand man left the president's side, but returned to his post as a member of Congress and has successfully used the courts to block his colleagues' efforts to throw him out.

But no major shake-up or reform is expected in a system whose rules are routinely exploited by politicians to avoid punishment or loss of power. Moreover, an electorate that initially followed every fresh revelation with relish and outrage has apparently reached the saturation point.

Many Brazilians now feel too exhausted to absorb the allegations that continue to surface, such as the latest one, in the newsmagazine Veja, accusing the Workers' Party of accepting covert campaign donations from Cuba, stashed away in rum and whiskey cartons.

"Everybody is already a little tired of the scandal," said Rogerio Schmitt, a political analyst with the Tendencias consultancy in Sao Paulo. "Everybody thinks, 'Well, what will Veja publish this weekend? What's the next allegation coming?' Even for myself, I have to keep track of all those allegations professionally, and it's very hard to keep up to date."

The scandal fatigue among the general public has meant good news for Lula, Brazil's first working-class president, who won election in 2002 promising clean government.

After plunging to their lowest levels since he took office, Lula's approval ratings appear to have stabilized. Although his approval ratings, recently 40% to 45%, are a far cry from the 80% he enjoyed soon after taking office, analysts believe he still stands a fair chance of reelection next year.

Lula's position has been bolstered by the continued strong performance of Brazil's export-driven economy, South America's largest. This month, the Brazilian currency, the real, climbed to its highest point against the dollar in more than four years. Within the last 18 months, the value of the real has increased against the dollar by nearly 30%.

Muttered threats of impeachment have faded, especially because a Lula ally recently took over as president of Congress. Lula's administration has also authorized more spending on infrastructure and what critics see as pork-barrel projects to mollify opposition lawmakers intent on dragging out the congressional inquiries.

This month, the Brazilian leader granted his first interview to the news media since the scandal broke, after months of criticism that he was ducking the press. On the nationally televised "Roda Viva" program, Lula declared that his administration was not trying to influence or hinder the investigations.

"There's no meddling by the government to create any problems for the [investigations]," he said. "There's a dream I have that ... there will come a day in which we will be able to clean up Brazil."

He condemned the use of a secret fund to finance Workers' Party campaigns -- a practice he had earlier characterized as no big deal -- and dismissed the allegations of a monthly bribe to lawmakers for their favorable votes in Congress, despite testimony to the contrary.

"I am certain that there was no mensalao," Lula said, referring to the alleged payment with a Portuguese word meaning the "big monthly one." "This smells like folklore."

And as he frequently does in public appearances, the president alluded to his personal background, his childhood experience of hunger and poverty and his years of toil as a metalworker and union leader.

The emphasis on his inspirational life story proved an effective campaign strategy in the 2002 election. But not everyone welcomed its repetition in the interview.

"He knows like nobody else how to get the most out of his origins and 'story' in order to manipulate heavy consciences in search of redemption," political columnist Dora Kramer wrote in the daily O Estado de Sao Paulo after the interview was aired.

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