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In Brazil's Corridors of Power, Mood Swings Against Rousseff

  • Reuters

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff attends a meeting with educators at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, April 12, 2016.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff attends a meeting with educators at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, April 12, 2016.

President Dilma Rousseff's fate in an impeachment vote in Brazil's Congress on Sunday is being decided in deals struck at lunch tables and behind the mirrored windows of luxury hotels in Brasilia, where the tide has turned decisively against her.

Rousseff's survival hinges on winning over a dwindling number of undecided lawmakers who are also being courted by the man poised to take over if she is ousted, Vice President Michel Temer.

Frenzied horse trading by both camps is taking place not only in their offices and official residences but inside congressional cafes and corridors, and in the glossy eateries of the futuristic capital.

At the luxurious Royal Tulip hotel - a marble-floored red crescent on the outskirts of Brasilia that is home-from-home for Brazil's political elite - former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has set up camp with the aim of saving Rousseff, his protege and successor.

Rousseff faces impeachment on charges of breaking budget laws to support her re-election in 2014, and her position has been weakened by a deep recession and a massive corruption scandal centered on state oil company Petrobras.

A former Marxist guerilla and now Brazil's first female leader, Rousseff denies any wrongdoing and has branded the process a "coup" to strip power from her leftist Workers' Party, which has won four straight presidential elections.

The situation remains fluid, legislators said, but there is a growing sense that even Lula's storied negotiating skills - which helped him rise from a union leader to Brazil's first working class president - cannot secure the one-third of votes in the lower house of Congress needed to save Rousseff.

Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during a press conference, after a meeting with Rio de Janeiro's Governor Luiz Pezao, in Rio de Janeiro, Dec. 3, 2015.

Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during a press conference, after a meeting with Rio de Janeiro's Governor Luiz Pezao, in Rio de Janeiro, Dec. 3, 2015.

"Lula is a superb negotiator but it's too late," said a senior senator from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) led by Temer. "These smaller parties ... want to be on the winning side."

The biggest force in Congress, the PMDB broke with the unpopular Rousseff last month after spending a decade in the ruling coalition. It has been followed in recent days by a series of smaller parties that have thrown their weight behind impeaching her.

If the lower house votes on Sunday to send Rousseff for impeachment in the Senate, the upper house could agree as early as May to hold the trial. At that point, Rousseff would be suspended for up to six months and Temer would take over. She has branded him a traitor.

Aides to Rousseff insist Lula could yet save her, despite corruption charges hanging over him. A hero to many poor Brazilians thanks to anti-poverty programs launched by his government, Lula would be the front-runner for the 2018 presidential election should he choose to run, polls say.

"People trust him and we are betting on that to win on Sunday," said one aide on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Another Rousseff confidant said Lula has been tasked with leading negotiations over senior government jobs and ministries in a new coalition.

"It's a tough negotiation because Temer's group is negotiating in parallel with the same people," he said.

With poppy Bossa Nova echoing amid the curved walls of its jasmine-scented lobby, the Royal Tulip hotel seems an unlikely setting for Brazil's bitter political warfare.

Yet insiders say it is here that Lula is waging his campaign to convince PMDB lawmakers to defy Temer and vote against impeaching Rousseff.

Carrots and Sticks

The government's principal weapon is the ability to offer up positions in ministries with enormous budgets to lawmakers in exchange for their loyalty, along with ramped up pork barrel spending for their pet projects.

But those enticements only work if lawmakers have faith that Rousseff will actually survive, and they increasingly do not.

Lower house members who support the impeachment demonstrate during a session to review the request for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, at the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia, Brazil, April 15, 2016.

Lower house members who support the impeachment demonstrate during a session to review the request for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, at the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia, Brazil, April 15, 2016.

Temer and the ardent pro-impeachment factions have growing momentum among lawmakers ahead of Sunday's vote, making it easier for them to convince lawmakers that siding with Rousseff is pointless if she will soon no longer be the president.

"What can Lula offer? Any promises have a short time span," said a senior PMDB official close to Temer and involved in the negotiations. "Politicians have a big sense of survival. We can offer them governability."

The shift in Congress toward impeachment allows Temer's camp to simply offer up the same rewards of government jobs and pork spending to legislators who vote against Rousseff.

It has also happened just as polls show the public's appetite for impeachment has slightly diminished.

Demonstrators demand the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff during a rally where a large inflatable doll of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stands in prison garb in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, March 13, 2016.

Demonstrators demand the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff during a rally where a large inflatable doll of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stands in prison garb in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, March 13, 2016.

The Datafolha polling group's latest survey taken on April 7-8 showed that 61 percent of Brazilians favor impeachment - down from 68 percent three weeks earlier.

As part of the negotiations, Ricardo Barros, a lawmaker with the Progressive Party (PP), was recently floated as top candidate to take over as Rousseff's next health minister, the ministry with the largest budget.

But the PP broke away from the Rousseff coalition on Tuesday and Barros told Reuters he would vote now for her impeachment.

Denouncing "this delivery of government jobs" in return for votes, Barros said that what should matter is whether or not lawmakers think Rousseff committed an impeachable offense.

Whoever is in Brasilia's modernist Planalto presidential palace in the wake of the impeachment process will have accrued a large number of political debts. That means a future government will have to share power and policy-making more widely - something the Workers' Party has been criticized for failing to do during 13 years in power.

For Jose Cardoso, 70, a retiree who lives in Brasilia's blue collar commuter suburb of Taguatinga, the round of frenzied political negotiations is another disappointment

"These negotiations are just another means of putting money in the pockets of the politicians," he said. "I don't believe in politicians but something has to change. They cannot stay like they are. I think she needs to leave the presidency."

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