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OP-ED | 27-01-2018 11:50

Editorial: A tale of two dilemmas

In theory, the judicial confirmation of Lula’s conviction should be end of story (just as economic disaster in Venezuela should be dooming its President Nicolás Maduro in the elections he is bringing ahead to April). But things are not that simple in this part of the world.

Brazil is always going to be hugely important for Argentina and the upheavals stemming from the confirmation of the corruption conviction against former two-term president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – openly defied by his party – cannot be a matter of indifference here. Various key questions arise for the year now beginning – whether Argentina can clinch that psychologically vital second year running of growth to shake off the electoral cycle, given the decisive economic influence of the giant neighbour, and in what kind of shape South America’s only other G20 member is going to arrive at the summit table here at the end of the year, just after elections for which the most popular candidate has been legally disqualified.

But there are also questions for next year, given the fairly obvious parallels between former two-term presidents here and there. Concretely, will the Lula drama prove a template for the destiny of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner a little further down the road? She too faces various corruption charges while last year’s midterms showed Peronism to lack an alternative with anything like her percentages – will these charges come home to roost during the 20 months before the presidential elections, as has now occurred with Lula, and would she then go ahead and run nonetheless, as the Brazilian ex-president seems resolved to do? Strong parallels but there are also differences. Brazil’s legal system differs in both letter and spirit – the Constitution grants the right to appeal following conviction but always from behind prison bars whereas Argentine jurisprudence is laxer (as illustrated by the recent release of former vice-president Amado Boudou).

The political context is also different – while the powers that be in Brazil relish the disqualification of the runaway opinion poll leader, much of the Mauricio Macri administration view Fernández de Kirchner (with her lack of appeal to the floating voter) as the dream rival for 2019 and would almost resent the courts depriving them of that prospect.

In theory, the judicial confirmation of Lula’s conviction should be end of story (just as economic disaster in Venezuela should be dooming its President Nicolás Maduro in the elections he is bringing ahead to April). But things are not that simple in this part of the world. There is a battleground beyond the courtroom – Brazilian government supporters might term it as institutions versus populism, while Lula fans might see it as legalism versus legitimacy but hardly anybody seems to feel that the judges have the last word. As it happens, the case on which Lula was convicted (being gifted a triplex flat in an Atlantic resort by a minor construction company) is almost irrelevant to the main legal charges against him, never mind the conflicting visions of legitimacy.

Lula would find it hard to disengage himself from that vast web of corruption summarised by the two words, petrolão (centred on the Petrobras state oil monopoly) and Odebrecht (a regional scandal which recently came within a whisker of toppling the  Peruvian presidency) – indeed he openly lobbied for public works contracts for the latter company in many (perhaps even most) of his regional tours during his two terms. But Lula would argue that the successes of his presidency – such as advancing far more toward “zero poverty” than the Macri administration has achieved in its first two years and placing Brazil on the world map as the first letter of BRICS – and above all the will of the people, should his favourable opinion polls be electorally confirmed, outweigh any legal considerations.

Brazil’s election campaign has thus made an early start – but the ramifications could set Argentina’s off on an even earlier one.


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