- - Monday, January 18, 2016

SAO PAULO — Just weeks before lawmakers will consider her fate, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is desperately trying to demonstrate that she is still in charge of South America’s most populous nation.

It’s a stunning turn of events for one of the world’s most powerful women, but amid a crippling economic and political crunch, Brazilians have largely lost faith in the leader they gave a second four-year term just 15 months ago, and many here hope that the corruption-related impeachment proceedings against her will soon put an end to Ms. Rousseff’s hapless second term.

Few bothered to even take note when the president sought to regain some momentum last week by hinting that her government was working on a major stimulus package to revive a staggering economy, hindered by falling oil and commodity prices after a long era of boom times under Ms. Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor in Brasilia, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“During Lula’s years, Brazil was doing well. But this woman ” said Wellington Martins dos Santos, a 26-year-old nurse technician who, along with hundreds of co-workers, lost his job at Sao Paulo’s prestigious Syrian-Lebanese Hospital last December. “I don’t understand much about politics, but I blame Dilma a lot.”

Ms. Rousseff’s political woes are finding an echo across the continent, where long-entrenched left-leaning governments are facing a rising voter backlash. South America’s so-called “Pink Tide” of the 2000s is also ebbing in Argentina, where center-right businessman Mauricio Macri last month ended 12 years of leftist control under President Cristiana Fernandez and her late husband, and in Venezuela, where populist President Nicolas Maduro may soon face his own ouster battle after a coalition of opposition parties won an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections Dec. 6.

The disaffection and pessimism of voters like Mr. dos Santos’ have come to define “The Crisis” — the all-encompassing term Brazilians have coined to describe the sudden decline of a country that had long been viewed as the poster child of developing economies — even potentially the next global economic superpower following the trail blazed by China. And the blame seems to fall squarely on Ms. Rousseff, whose approval numbers have lately been hovering in the single digits.

For months Brazilians in cities across the nation have been taking to the streets to protest. And though many of the demonstrations have a local focus, the anger often turns on the president.

“I believe that all Brazilians are suffering in ‘The Crisis,’” said Inacio, who, like many Brazilians, goes by his first name, as he was holed up in a snack bar one block from Sao Paulo’s landmark Paulista Avenue on Tuesday. “I believe that we deserve a country that is a little bit better.”

While military police outside used tear gas canisters to disperse protesters fighting a 7-cent bus fare hike, the 49-year-old government worker mused that such violent clashes were becoming increasingly common, adding that he “certainly” hoped Ms. Rousseff would soon be replaced.

Already a polarizing figure during her first term, the president alienated many supporters of her leftist Workers’ Party after her 2014 re-election when she implemented budget-cutting austerity measures and — in an effort to appease international markets — appointed fiscally conservative economist Joaquim Levy as her finance minister.

Last month Ms. Rousseff replaced the University of Chicago-trained Mr. Levy with Nelson Barbosa, a leftist economist. But her move has yet to impress citizens worried over rising unemployment and inflation and angered by high taxes and a wide-ranging corruption scandal.

Not in a partying mood

What was supposed to be a global party as Rio de Janeiro prepares to host this year’s Summer Olympics finds many Brazilians in a distinctly uncelebratory mood.

Economists forecast the economy, even with the Olympics-funded boost, will shrink for the second straight year, the worst performance since 1930. The real inflation rate is believed to be above 10 percent, and the slowdown in China’s economy and the recent plunge in world oil prices have played havoc with the government’s finances.

Throw in a painful drought and the steady drip of revelations in the scandal involving the state oil company, Petrobras, and it’s not hard to see why Ms. Rousseff is in trouble.

“The government is immobilized. The economy is paralyzed, [and] her electorate felt abandoned,” said Marta da Silva Arretche, who teaches political science at the University of Sao Paulo. “But in Brazil, we do not have the instrument of the recall.”

Many Rousseff critics have their hopes pinned to a maneuver by Eduardo Cunha, the conservative president of the Chamber of Deputies, to impeach and oust the president over her suspected involvement in the Lava Jato — “Car Wash” — scandal linked to corruption at Petrobras, which has tainted virtually all of Brazil’s political class, including Mr. Cunha himself. The heart of the case against the president: that she violated the country’s budget law by using accounting tricks to mask the true size of the deficit.

But even if the president’s powerful nemesis summons the needed supermajorities to convict her in the impeachment proceedings slated to begin next month, the political instability would likely only increase, said Ms. Arretche.

If removed from office, Ms. Rousseff would be replaced by Vice President Michel Temer or — if Mr. Temer were ousted as well — by Mr. Cunha. But both men belong to the “radically divided” center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, and neither may be able to form a functioning governing coalition anymore than Ms. Rousseff, Ms. Arretche said.

Worse yet, prosecutors have accused Mr. Cunha of taking millions of dollars in bribes and launched an investigation that eventually may well cost him his top post in the congress. Early general elections to reconfigure the political landscape, meanwhile, are not an option under the Brazilian constitution.

With Congress in recess until February, Ms. Rousseff, for the time being, seems determined to “play president,” as the influential Folha de S.Paulo newspaper put it. And though they may want to see her gone, Brazilians’ best hope may be for the president to rebuild her strained relations with Mr. Temer and members of her governing coalition in Congress.

Overcoming impeachment by itself “does not mean that she will be able to govern,” Ms. Arretche said. “I think that her only chance to pass [reforms] is to revive her government coalition.”

Ms. Rousseff is clearly hoping the breathing room provided by the legislature’s recess will give her time to turn her image around. The government got some rare good news at the end of 2015 with the approval of a new budget and a legal ruling that experts here say will make any impeachment drive harder.

The president has embarked on a PR offensive, admitting in sessions with reporters this month her past mistakes but saying recent moves to curb inflation and get the budget deficit under control will bear fruit as the economy revives. The president said she had also learned from her past errors, especially underestimating the headwinds Brazil faced.

“The biggest mistake was failing to see that the crisis was so big in 2014, failing to gauge the magnitude of the economic slowdown due to internal and external problems,” she told reporters earlier this month.

And while the isolated president can do little about Mr. Cunha’s maneuverings, there is virtually no chance she would step aside on her own account, Ms. Arretche said. It’s “highly likely,” she said, that “she is going to fight until the end.”

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