Lula's Throat Cancer: Why Brazil Is Sorely Missing Its Voice Of Reason

Analysis: Rumors have it that Lula is on the road to recovery following treatment for throat cancer. That's particularly good news for Brazil's governing PT and its political allies who have suffered without the powerful ex-president&

Lula and Dilma in December
Lula and Dilma in December
Izabelle Azevedo

BRASILIA -- Brazilian television presenter Fernando Mitre summed it up best when, upon hearing the news of Lula's illness, said: "He's the best communicator out of all our politicians. And the illness is hitting him right where he has his most important tool, his voice, the key to his charisma."

For years, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has used that voice, which is at once humorous, wise and pragmatic, to great effect as the leading mediator amongst Brazil's political class. He has been especially adept when it comes to assigning government posts, sorting out candidacies and taming competing egos within the governing Workers' Party (PT) and its allied parties. It's a role that Lula's low-key successor, current President Dilma Rousseff, never agreed to take on.

Nationwide municipal elections are scheduled for October, and there is growing concern about how both intra- and inter-party negotiations will play out for some of the more emblematic posts. An example: before being diagnosed with throat cancer, Lula had brokered an agreement within the PT over the coveted Sao Paulo mayorship. Marta Suplicy, who was mayor in 2005 and has since lost two elections, agreed to step aside to give current Education Minister Fernando Haddad a shot.

Lula has a way of using his gift for the gab – combined with a few promises – to solve political conflicts. Members of the PT's inner circle openly admit the party has no one else who can really do that, which is why – without Lula acting as referee – the governing party is suddenly taking hits from all sides. In key cities like Belo Horizonte and Recife, the ex-president's influence is waning and there are now signs of rebellion among the PT's political allies.

"Lula always sought unity," says André Vargas, communications secretary for the Republic Party (PR), a center-right ally of the PT. "Finding it now will be a challenge."

Hoping for a speedy recovery

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez's cancer has both his backers and opponents buzzing with nervous anticipation. Things haven't reached that level in Brazil, although Lula's health problems do complicate things for the PT, which faces a potentially difficult year ahead, especially with the evolving international financial crisis. Recent figures from Brazil's Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) suggest that the economy has begun slowing down over the past few months.

Outside the party as well, many Brazilian politicians are simply crossing their fingers in hopes that Lula will make a speedy recovery and get back to work as soon as possible. "We're counting on him being back on the scene after Carnival," says Congressman Enrique Eduardo Alves of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB).

Alves is a good example of someone who really relies heavily on the ex-president's personal touch. Looking toward 2013, the PMDB member has his sights on the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil's lower house of congress. Lula, if he were available, could use his influence and negotiating skills to make that happen. Without Lula to tell them otherwise, PT leaders may deny Alves the post.

The Chamber is made up of 513 deputies, 311 of whom form the so-called "Lulist" block. The Lulists maintain a certain amount of loyalty to the ex-president despite hailing from 10 different political parties, including the center-right PR and far-left Brazilian Communist Party. Another 48 seats in the Chamber are held by parties that also lean Lulist but are technically not part of the coalition.

A circus-like voting system

According to political commentator Paulo Vannucchi, the problem stems from the fact that since 1985, Brazil's various democratic governments have institutionalized the practice of awarding ministerial posts to cooperative parties in exchange for support in Congress. Many of the parties are little more than alliances of local interest groups. The PR, for example, is represented in Congress by people like "soy king" Blairo Maggi, a wealthy planter; Magno Malta, an evangelical leader who has bounced from party to party; and Tiririca, a professional clown whose real name is Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva.

Tiririca, which translates roughly as grumpy, is a good example of just how strangely Brazil's electoral system operates. In the 2010 general election, the comedian managed to win 1.3 million votes (out of 30 million in the state of Sao Paulo), making him the single biggest vote getter among congressional candidates – despite the fact that he offered no real platform and has been publicly accused of being illiterate.

Because of the country's unique voting system – which the Economist referred to last year as a "global oddity" – the wildly popular Tiririca not only earned himself a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, but won seats as well for three equally off-the-wall members of his so-called Nano Party.

But as much as Lula's hefty political influence is missing at the moment, his absence could also be an opportunity for the PT and its allies. It won't be easy, but they would do well to develop a more institutional approach to the business of divvying up political posts and renovating party leaderships.

For inspiration, they might look to the center-left Concertación coalition that governed Chile for 20 years (1990-2010) after dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down. The Concertación's member parties did a good job for each election of mixing up their candidates and adapting to changes in public perception. Uruguay's left-wing Broad Front coalition seems to be heading in that direction as well.

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

Photo - Dilma Rousseff

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!