RIO DE JANEIRO: When an assault on a huge blow-up doll makes front-page news, you know Brazil’s already surreal political crisis is heading into ever-wilder territory.
The doll depicts ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from the ruling leftist Workers’ Party in jail garb and it has become a rallying point for right wing demonstrators trying to bring down Lula’s successor President Dilma Rousseff.
Last Friday, an ardent Workers’ Party supporter in Sao Paulo ran up and punctured the effigy, which is 12 meters high when inflated, prompting headlines about the now famous dummy being “knifed” and a hate campaign on social media against the assailant.
The incident, while a sideshow in the overall drama of Rousseff’s fight for survival and Brazil’s dive into recession and scandal, was not just political hot air.
Until last week Lula, as he is universally known, had largely maintained his distance from Rousseff’s ever-worsening crisis.
But the political giant, whose presidency was praised for helping millions escape terrible poverty, made a dramatic declaration Saturday promising to aid Rousseff — and give the opposition hell.
“I have broad shoulders and I have been beaten up plenty in my life. Let’s see if our rivals give our beloved Dilma a little break and start being bothered by me again,” Lula said.
For the right wing opposition, which in August mounted its third huge demonstration of the year against the Workers Party and which plans another protest in Rio de Janeiro this week, the battle lines are clear.
For Rousseff, all that’s clear is the dizzying extent of her troubles.
Figures on Friday showed Brazil is officially in recession, an embezzlement scandal centered on oil giant Petrobras is scaring off investors, inflation is at a 12-year high, unemployment is at a near-five-year high, Congress blocks her, and her enemies want her impeached.
No wonder the former leftist guerrilla, reelected to a second term last year, has an approval rating of just eight percent.
“President Rousseff is currently facing a major governability crisis,” consultants Barral M Jorge Policy Analysis Unit said in a risk assessment, which foresees “increased instability” through the end of 2015.
“The combination of the economic crisis with the political unrest has led Brazil to face the perfect storm in 2015.”
Lula, 69, positioned himself on Saturday as the elder statesman throwing a lifebuoy to his Workers’ Party protégé before she goes under. Things are not quite that simple.
Lula’s even more telling comments may have come the previous day when he hinted at seeking a return to power in the next presidential elections in 2018.
“You can be sure of the following: if it’s necessary, I’ll be in the race,” Lula said on Radio Itatiaia.
David Fleischer, politics professor emeritus at the University of Brasilia, says Lula has always wanted to win back the presidency and prolong the dominance of the party he co-founded.
“Now Lula sees Dilma and the Workers’ Party have big problems, so Lula is going to come back, traveling, giving lectures and conferences and trying to ‘save’ the Workers’ Party and his own possible candidacy in 2018,” Fleischer said.
“He’s not there to save Dilma.”
But even if Lula has more credibility than lame duck Rousseff, he is off the political heights he enjoyed as the charismatic president of 2003-2010, stepping down with 80 percent approval ratings and worldwide fans.
Although neither he nor Rousseff have been charged in the Petrobras corruption scheme, their Workers’ Party is heavily implicated. Lula is also the target of a separate influence peddling probe in which he allegedly helped massive construction company Odebrecht — another player in the Petrobras corruption — win contracts abroad.
Lula is still a skilled politician and in some areas retains passionate support. But according to the latest opinion poll, he’d manage no better than distant runner-up against opposition candidates if an election were held today.
“He is increasingly discredited,” Fleischer said. “The opposition used to be afraid of Lula, but now it seems they no longer are.”
Opposition group Revoltados ON LINE, which paints the political upheaval as “a war between good and evil,” is planning rallies this Thursday in Rio and September 7 in Brasilia.
And the inflatable doll, an opposition cult object after its stabbing, isn’t about to be retired. It reappeared on Sunday in Sao Paulo, O Globo newspaper reported — soon provoking scuffles between activists and angry Workers’ Party loyalists.