Lawfare continues

Supreme Court judge Gilmar Mendes has suspended Lula’s nomination as Chief of Staff and returned his case to the jurisdiction of Sergio Mora. Who is Gilmar Mendes? Appointed to the supreme court by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Mendes provoked controversy by apparently protecting the financier Daniel Dantas, under investigation by the Federal Police for money laundering. Mendes accused the police of tapping his phone and the administration of then President Lula of creating a “police state”. This is more than a little ironic since he is happy to use wire tap evidence of questionable legality against Lula himself. As President Dilma pointed out in a speech yesterday, the recording and immediate press diffusion of her conversations with ex-President Lula show that no Brazilian citizen can now be confident that he or she enjoys any kind of  right to privacy. What is happening here would not be acceptable in most mature democracies.

Judge Mendes is a deeply political animal. He demanded a police investigation of the Portuguese version of Wikipedia (for publishing details of ethical misconduct and corruption charges that had been made against him) and he has advocated making it impossible for the legislative branch of government to make constitutional changes that would affect the powers of the Supreme Court. Much of the current political battle is about demands for judicial “autonomy” that would place judges beyond democratic control. The career of Mendes himself makes it clear why this would be a very bad idea. Judges are politically connected and they can and often do display strong political bias.

The government will pursue an appeal against this judge’s decision, but there will not be a full meeting of the Supreme Court until the end of March (generous holiday entitlements are one of the many perks enjoyed by the Brazilian judiciary).

Both the judiciary and federal police seem determined to deepen the politicisation of this crisis and the profound polarisation that it is producing. Yesterday my wife and I joined many colleagues from the federal university, including its rector, in the march in defence of democracy organised by the CUT (Unified Workers’ Central), the biggest trade union organisation in Latin America. This was one of a series of demonstrations throughout the country, and Lula addressed a large crowd in São Paulo. As usual, the conservative media tried their best to convince their readers that the lowest possible estimates for participation were correct, but the military police estimated that 50,000 people participated in the march in Salvador, which would make it the largest in the country after the São Paulo rally. Folha de São Paulo did have the decency to publish this figure (along with participation estimates from the organisers, which were much higher in all cases). In my personal judgement, 50,000 might actually have been a bit too high, but Correio da Bahia newspaper suggested that unspecified “observers” put the number of participants in Salvador at a mere 10,000, which is certainly very much too low. This newspaper is clearly putting out propaganda, not news, fairly predictably since it is part of the Globo empire and belongs to the family of the great Bahian political boss Antônio Carlos Magalhaes, whose grandson is Salvador’s current mayor. Not surprisingly, the Globo media empire, chief media orchestrator of the coup, was one of the principal targets of protest on the part of the demonstrators.

The main organisations that turned out to contest the impeachment of the president are strongly critical of Dilma’s current economic policies (and many criticisms might be made of the PT administrations under Lula too). Yet they do see very clearly where the country and its working people will be headed if this government is removed, and Lula politically neutralised,  as a result of a judicial coup backed by highly questionable use of federal police prerogatives that is ultimately political in nature. One of the most pleasing aspects of the Bahian demonstration, besides its good humour and peacefulness, was the participation, in addition to members of the PT itself and the PCdoB, of councilman Silvio Humberto and other leading members of the PSB in Bahia, despite the fact that their national leadership has broken with the federal government, in an act of opportunism sadly becoming typical of this party.

Despite the upcoming holidays, Eduardo Cunha, the leader of the lower house of Congress, is doing his utmost to accelerate the impeachment process. “Cunha, out!” was another popular slogan last night. A staggering 26% of the parliamentary commission considering the case for impeachment (now backed by the Ordem dos Abogados do Brasil) are themselves under investigation for corruption. But it does not look as if the removal of Dilma would lead to a wholesale clearing out of the augean stable of Brazilian party politics. The Italian Mani Pulite operation that Judge Moro takes as his model did result in the apparent destruction of the established part system, but the main beneficiary of that process was Silvio Berlusconi, and the mafia, construction companies and other habitual suborners of elected politicians easily devised more sophisticated and less traceable ways of paying their kickbacks. In Brazil, however, the attack is focused on the PT, and even if bringing down the PT caused some collateral damage, there is little reason to imagine that the impeachment of Dilma would produce any more substantial reform than the impeachment of ex-president Fernando Collor, who survived to (allegedly) sin another day after returning to political life in 2006 as a senator. But as I wrote in my previous post, those who seek to end Dilma’s term prematurely should be careful about what they wish for. The removal from power of a government that still enjoys the kind of popularity that manifested itself on the streets last night would take the country’s political polarisation to new heights. Furthermore, the anti-democratic tendencies that are emerging as this “law fare” process unfolds must provoke major worries about what a post-impeachment future might bring.