BRAZILIANS! You’ve just been taken for fools!” So wrote the organisers of an online petition calling for the impeachment of Renan Calheiros, who was elected president of Brazil’s Senate on February 1st. And on February 11th, though Carnival was in full swing, the petition notched up more than 1.36m signatures, 1% of the electorate. That gives its backers the right to present their demand to Congress, though they will have to wait until after February 19th to do so: whereas other Brazilians get three days off for Carnival, lawmakers enjoy two full weeks.
Mr Calheiros, a wheeler-dealer of the sort who excels in Brazil’s fragmented coalition politics, was president of the Senate from 2005 to 2007. But he resigned after allegations that a lobbyist had paid maintenance on his behalf to a lover with whom he had had a child, and that he then faked receipts for the sale of cattle to try to prove that he could have afforded to pay her himself. He denies all wrongdoing and has since stayed active in politics, but only behind the scenes. His allies in the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), Brazil’s largest, evidently judged it was time for him to return to centre-stage.
The president of Brazil’s Senate has the power to sideline his enemies’ projects and deny them opportunities for patronage. That is why 56 senators voted for Mr Calheiros and only 18 against—even though Aécio Neves and Eduardo Campos, two probable opposition presidential candidates in 2014, had urged their parties to vote for a hastily chosen alternative. Dilma Rousseff, the president, has taken a hard line in the past by sacking ministers facing allegations of corruption. And her Workers’ Party is angry about what it sees as bias: last year’s trial of the mensalão (big monthly stipend) vote-buying scandal saw many of its members handed unexpectedly harsh sentences. But realpolitik prevailed. With the PMDB behind Mr Calheiros, Ms Rousseff accepted his candidacy and telephoned to congratulate him when he won.
Mr Calheiros is the latest example of a well-established Brazilian phenomenon: the politician who can survive any number of seemingly killer blows. Paulo Maluf, found guilty of overbilling and taking kickbacks in the 1990s as São Paulo’s mayor, is so notorious that malufar has entered the Portuguese language, meaning “to steal from public funds”. He was elected to Congress in 2006 and is still there. José Genoino and Francisco Tenório, respectively found guilty of bribery (in the mensalão) and under investigation for murder, have just replaced congressmen who stepped down to become mayors. In total, a third of Brazil’s lawmakers have either been convicted or are being investigated for crimes ranging from vote-buying to theft to slave-holding.
Many Brazilians are perfectly happy to vote for such people. Their compatriots had pinned their hopes on the result of the most recent petition presented to Congress: the ficha limpa(clean record) law of 2010. That shamed lawmakers into barring for eight years the candidacy of anyone found guilty of a crime or electoral wrongdoing—or anyone who had stepped down to avoid investigation. But legal manoeuvring meant the new rules were not implemented until after that year’s elections.
The next round of elections in 2014 should see some of the corruptos kicked out of Congress. But the delay has bred cynicism about political institutions. A recent survey found that, for the first time since the return of democracy in 1988, only a minority of Brazilians now support any specific party.
Instead, more are putting their hope in the courts—and public opinion. Many attribute the stiffmensalão verdicts, in part, to the fact that the trial was broadcast live on television. And it made a hero of the supreme court’s president, Joaquim Barbosa, who rallied his fellow judges to his hard line. While some Carnival revellers took the time to support the “Out with Renan” campaign, others went to street parties wearing Barbosa masks and judges’ gowns. Brazilians still have hope that the political zombies can be laid to rest.