Brazil finds silver-lining in Petrobras probe

The political weather is changeable but institutions are holding firm, writes John Paul Rathbone
epa05326984 The interim president of Brazil, Michel Temer, said that if he is in charge its 'a result of Brazilian Constitution', during a meeting with ministers at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brasil, 24 May 2016. Temer added further that 'I want to refute those who say that there was a constitutional breakdown in Brazil, because that is not true, I am a result of the Constitution'. EPA/FERNANDO BIZERRA JR©EPA
Interim president of Brazil, Michel Temer
Tancredo Neves, who was elected Brazilian president in 1985 but died before taking office, once remarked that politics is like clouds. You look at the sky and the clouds appear a certain way. If you look away only for a moment, the clouds change shape.

So it is in Brazil today. Michel Temer has been interim president for only two weeks and his cloudscape has changed already. On Monday, Romero Jucá , the planning minister, was implicated in wanting to head-off the Petrobras corruption inquiry by pursuing the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. The revelation, contained in a secret recording, forced Mr Jucá, who has denied wrongdoing, to step down.
This is Mr Temer’s first major setback. He needs to win public trust and investor confidence so that he can find a way out of Brazil’s worst-ever recession. Instead, the Jucá recording raises legitimate questions about the motives behind Ms Rousseff’s already controversial impeachment. Was this really about holding to task an incompetent president? Or was it more about protecting a cabal of corrupt insiders? Suspicions will run high as several other ministers in Mr Temer’s cabinet — including the president himself — have been implicated by the investigation.
Political cloud shapes change quickly indeed. Yet are Mr Jucá’s problems — and others that may well follow — really so unexpected? After all, cloud shapes follow deeper weather patterns.

Brasília is a seething pit of compromised politicians. Few people know that better than Mr Temer, who has been in Congress for almost 30 years. He will have understood the risks involved in appointing compromised ministers. It is also just as likely that he felt he had to put them there in order to cut the deals required by Brazil’s political system to get his economic rescue package, presented to Congress on Tuesday, off the ground. There was always the strong chance these appointees would get hit by lightning. So it has proved.

What is noteworthy is that Mr Temer did not protect Mr Jucá. He has even thrown a few thunderbolts himself. He has slapped down his justice minister for suggesting that politicians should appoint judges to the independent prosecutors’ office. He has forced his health minister to retract foolish statements about reducing constitutional rights. Mr Temer is no saint. But he has not obstructed the Petrobras corruption probe so far.
This undercuts arguments, including from former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, that the impeachment process was a “coup” led by a corrupt establishment wanting to block the inquiry and save its skin. Indeed, irony of ironies, one of the reasons given in Mr Jucá’s recorded conversation for supposedly seeking Ms Rousseff’s impeachment was to protect Mr Lula da Silva himself.

That Brazil’s institutions continue to hold is the silver-lining of the massively disruptive Petrobras investigation. This is testament to Brazil’s newfound and so far admirable adherence to the rule of law. Last night, the judge overseeing the process insisted it would continue.

Federal police have said the same. Of course, this will also make the job of economic revival, and Mr Temer’s new government, much much harder. There will be many more dramatic cloud shape shifts to come.

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