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Brazil: What lies behind the political chaos?

In the latest chapter of Brazil's political roller-coaster, the ex-president Lula was appointed as the government's chief of staff, an appointment that was promptly suspended by a judge.

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    An anti-government demonstrator takes part in a protest against President Dilma Rousseff's appointment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as her chief of staff, near the Planalto palace in Brasilia, Brazil, March 17, 2016.
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Brazil, a country come to be seen as somewhat steady and predictable in recent years, seems to be sinking into an ever-evolving political maelstrom.

The latest chapter in this saga that refuses to pause for breath saw former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, sworn in as the embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's chief of staff Thursday, in a move many see as an effort to shield Lula from prosecution.

Shortly after the swearing-in, a Brazilian judge blocked Lula's appointment.

Supporters of Lula clashed with opposition protesters in the capital Brasilia, and demonstrations took place in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in a display of frustration and discontent with the political machinations sweeping the nation.

“Up until ten days ago, I thought Brazilian democracy was working, it wasn’t under threat, institutions were working well,” says Matthew Taylor, adjunct senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“Now, the institutions continue to work well, but actors exaggerate on all sides.”

Brazil has been living with the steady progress of the Petrobras scandal, which has ensnared politicians of all hues, ever since the case first opened in 2014, but events in the past couple of weeks have snowballed at a shocking rate.

First, Lula, the man who has become the “symbol of Brazil”, as Andrea Murta of the Atlantic Council describes him in a telephone interview with the Monitor, was tainted by the case for the first time, briefly detained by police on March 4th.

Then, in a state case, separate to the federal Petrobras investigation, prosecutors sought the arrest of Lula in a corruption probe relating to ownership of seafront property.

Finally, the government made the surprise move of seeking to bestow upon Lula the position of chief of staff, rendering him immune to prosecution by any but the Supreme Court.

“His nomination now, even though his fall represents so much, is a huge mistake, a last ditch attempt at survival,” says Ms. Murta, who is associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

“They knew they were risking a huge backlash, but the president’s situation is pretty desperate.”

The government itself is fighting for survival, says Murta, and in Lula they see hope – the possibility of lending his still substantial, though dwindling, public support, “as well as smoothing the road to dialogue between government and congress."

It could also help President Rousseff survive impeachment proceedings, which began Thursday.

“Some argue this will just make the government sink faster; some say because Lula is who he is, he might give the government room to breathe,” says Murta. “I stand with the first group: the situation is so bad, and society has taken it so brutally, as an offense almost.”

Yet it is not just the government that is causing consternation.

While many have underscored the strength of Brazilian democracy, as demonstrated by the way in which the authorities have pursued politicians and businessmen alike in the maze of the Petrobras investigation, others worry that individuals are beginning to act excessively.

One example, as explained by Dr. Taylor, who is also associate professor at the School of International Service at American University, was the way in which a judge released evidence Thursday to support the suspension of Lula’s appointment as chief of staff.

The evidence used came from a wiretap, and it was publicized only a couple of hours after it was allegedly recorded, leading some to question the impartiality of the judge involved.

“Brazil’s judicial systems are working well, but the agents within them, as anywhere, aren’t angels,” says Taylor. “The institutions are independent, well-funded, and, unlike in most Latin American countries, their decisions are complied with.”

“But these past ten days have showed us what may be overreach or politicization of these institutions.”

There is a real division in Brazil, at the moment, says Murta. Certainly, many are calling for the impeachment of President Rousseff, but there is still a substantial section of society willing to defend the government, even if their motivation is waning.

“Passions have to calm, emotions cool off – and they will: even if impeachment does move ahead, it’s likely to be slow,” says Taylor. “I think cooler heads will eventually prevail, but temperatures are higher than I’ve seen in the last 20 years.”

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