By Jaylan Boyle, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Embattled former President and current head of the Brazilian Senate, José Sarney, may have inched closer to winning the battle for his political survival. The Senate Ethics Committee voted not to re-open an investigation into multiple accusations of corruption.
There are however signs that survival for Mr. Sarney may not depend solely on negotiating the political consequences of the scandal, as thousands of protesters hit the streets in thirteen cities nationwide last week, demanding the senator’s resignation.
Although the defeated application to have Sarney’s affairs examined was expected, many commentators had predicted that the former President would fall on his sword, given the almost daily accusations coming to light over the last few months.
This viewpoint was lent weight earlier in August when incumbent President Luiz Inácio da Silva, formerly a staunch supporter of Sarney, moved to distance himself from the scandal in order to shield his chosen successor to the Brazilian presidency, Dilma Rousseff. Silva’s PT (Workers’ Party) has traditionally relied on the support of Sarney’s MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), the largest in Congress, to achieve voting majorities and advance their legislative ambitions.
The campaign to investigate irregularities in Sarney’s dealings has been led by the conservative São Paulo newspaper Estado de São Paulo, which has alleged that R$500,000 of R$1.6 Million donated by petroleum giant Petrobras to Sarney’s foundation was diverted to front companies and to Sarney’s family and friends. Sarney’s response has been blanket denial.
“It is a campaign by the Estado de São Paulo, which has a political position against mine, to support President Lula [da Silva],” he has said. Another of the accusations involves 663 ‘secret acts’ that the Brazilian Senate passed between 1995 and this year, around ten percent of which Estado de São Paulo says directly benefited Mr. Sarney’s friends and family. His son is also being investigated for money laundering.
Throughout the snowballing controversy surrounding Sarney, he has maintained that he has no intention of stepping down, and given the recent decision of the Ethics Committee many are saying that he may yet weather the storm.
Such a feat of survival is not without precedent in Brazilian politics: Renan Calheiros, who held the post of President of the Senate from 2005 to 2007, held onto power long after being forced from the post by scandal, and today is one of the most powerful members of the Senate.
Last week’s protests seem to suggest that the Brazilian populace is increasingly determined to leave behind a long history of political figures lining their pockets with public funds and otherwise abusing power.
In São Paulo, 1,000 demonstrators wore red noses and obstructed traffic. “It is shameful what is happening in Brazil,” said Marcelo Pizani, journalist and São Paulo organizer of the “Fora Sarney” (Sarney Out) campaign.
Sarney’s opponents accuse him of being the ongoing embodiment of the old ‘coronelismo’ system of the late nineteenth century, when power resided in the hands of a few wealthy landowners. According to Pizani, protesters plan to march every Saturday until Sarney steps down.