Editorial Board

President Dilma Rousseff Mocks Brazilian Justice

Dilma floats a trial balloon.

Photographer: LULA MARQUES/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Dilma Rousseff has responded to the Brazilian public's increasingly loud cry for greater accountability by mocking it. Her blatant attempt to protect her predecessor from prosecution will not end well -- for her or Brazil.

On Thursday, a federal judge blocked the appointment of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as Rousseff's chief of staff, where, as a cabinet minister, he would have been shielded from probes by all but the Supreme Court. The judge argued that it would put the former president in a position to interfere with investigations into his activities. Rousseff may be able to overcome this objection, but she will still have put herself on the wrong side of justice and history.

Brazil's Highs and Lows

Even before the Lula circus began, Rousseff faced the possibility of either impeachment (for allegedly fiddling with the government's books) or having her election annulled (for alleged campaign finance irregularities). Yet it's difficult to see who, among Brazil's political elite, could help.

Many of those who might succeed her -- from her vice president and the heads of the legislature to the candidate she defeated in 2014 -- are either under investigation or suspicion in the vast bribery and kickback scandal involving Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. Revelations from plea deals and pending prosecutions promise to ensnare even more of Brazil's political and business elite.

Political oddsmakers now bet on Rousseff's departure before the end of her term in 2018, and Brazil's markets and currency are rallying at the prospect. Yet Rousseff's departure would fix neither Brazil's economy nor its culture of corruption and impunity that inspired a memorable observation attributed to Lula: When a poor man steals, he goes to jail; when a rich man steals, he becomes a minister.

One solution to this enduring problem lies with Sergio Moro, the federal judge who has been diligently pursuing, prosecuting and -- most importantly -- jailing those involved in the Petrobras scandal, to great public acclaim. Moro's decision to release incriminating wiretaps of Lula and Rousseff discussing his cabinet post sparked legal protests from her office. Yet as he said in defending his decision: "Democracy is a free society that demands that those governed know what those who govern them do, even when they seek to act protected by the shadows."

The other solution lies with voters, who will have the chance to express their desire for more honest officials in municipal elections this fall. Unless Brazil's top electoral court annuls the results of the 2014 presidential elections -- in which case, voters may get to clean house from the top down.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.