Brazil’s Political Drama Grinds On During Olympics – Wall Street Journal

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, second from left in front row,  International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, center, and Brazil's Interim President Michel Temer, second from right, watch the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics. Other Brazilian leaders were absent.
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BRASÍLIA—The 2016 Olympics kicked off with plenty of foreign dignitaries in attendance at the opening ceremonies, but most of Brazil’s leaders were conspicuously absent from what should have been a triumph for a nation hosting the first-ever Olympics in South America.

Brazil’s suspended president, Dilma Rousseff, and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the charismatic former union leader who is credited with landing the Olympics for Brazil, were nowhere to be seen at the ceremonies. They are too busy fighting for their political lives.

Meanwhile, acting President Michel Temer is so unpopular that he wasn’t even formally introduced Friday night to the opening ceremonies crowd at Maracanã Stadium in the hopes that he wouldn’t be heckled. It didn’t work. He was roundly booed when he appeared briefly on the big stadium screens to officially open the Games near the end of a program that lasted roughly four hours.

What should be a moment to savor for Brazil’s government is a time of tension and soul searching as an impeachment trial and an epic corruption scandal dominate the country’s politics.

“Everybody would rather be focusing on Rio,” said Andre César, a political consultant in the capital. “But we can’t stop while the real-life battle goes on.”

The struggle is toughest for Ms. Rousseff, whose impeachment trial continues to grind forward in the capital.

Less than two week after lighting the Olympic torch here in early May, Brazil’s first female president was forced to step down temporarily to face judgment in the Senate. She is charged with using illegal accounting tricks to mask a budget deficit, which she has repeatedly denied.

Suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was absent for the opening ceremonies at the Olympics.
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A former leftist guerrilla who endured torture under Brazil’s military dictatorship, Ms. Rousseff has steadfastly declared that she will prevail and regain the presidency.

That appears to be about as likely as Fiji winning the gold in men’s soccer: There’s a chance, but not a very good one.

Ms. Rousseff remains deeply unpopular. Polls show that most Brazilians don’t want her back despite their reservations about Mr. Temer, the former vice president who will serve out the remainder of her term through 2018 if Ms. Rousseff is ultimately ousted.

A Senate committee voted 14-5 on Thursday to recommend that she be convicted and forced out permanently. The Senate is expected to determine her fate shortly after the Games are over.

Brazil’s high-stakes impeachment drama is an awkward first for a modern Olympics. The country appears to have avoided another after Ms. Rousseff recently declined an invitation from the interim Temer administration to attend Friday’s opening ceremonies.

The prospect that she and Mr. Temer, now bitter political enemies, might share the Olympic spotlight and force foreign dignitaries to choose whose hand to shake had set diplomatic circles on edge, inside and outside Brazil.

“It would have been very embarrassing,” said Roberto Goulart Menezes, a foreign affairs expert in Brasília.

Mr. Temer faces troubles of his own. Millions of Brazilians see him as a turncoat who helped orchestrate the impeachment proceeding to drive Ms. Rousseff’s leftist government from power. Protesters have staged demonstrations in Rio. And his heckling by a solidly middle-class crowd at Maracanã shows he is on a short leash.

Mr. Temer didn’t stay to enjoy the Games. Hard work waits for him at the capital in Brasília, where he aims to secure the 54 Senate votes needed to boot Ms. Rousseff from the presidency and maintain his hold on power for the next 2 1/2 years.

But Mr. Temer’s tenure could be in doubt even if Ms. Rousseff is booted. An electoral court is investigating whether illegal campaign donations funded the pair’s 2014 re-election ticket. If dirty money is found, it could lead to his ouster and new elections. Both Ms. Rousseff and Mr. Temer have denied wrongdoing; there is no timetable for an electoral court decision.

The supposedly illegal funds came from a sprawling corruption investigation that has upended Brazilian politics. The probe is centered on state oil company Petróleo Brasileiro SA,
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or Petrobras. Prosecutors say corrupt executives and politicians colluded for at least a decade to skim billions from the company, channeling some of those funds to political campaigns.

The scandal has battered an already deeply wounded economy. Brazil’s GDP contracted 3.8% in 2015 and is forecast to shrink again this year. Unemployment tops 11%.

This wasn’t the coming out party that Brazil had expected.

In 2009, Mr. da Silva led Rio’s successful bid to host the Olympics, which were to be the exclamation point on the South American nation’s stunning rise.

Brazil was riding a commodities boom that helped fund government programs that lifted millions from poverty. The nation had discovered a monster offshore oil field that promised to keep the good times rolling. In 2010, the economy expanded at a Chinese-like rate of 7.6%. Mr. da Silva, who led the nation from 2003 to 2010, became one of the most popular Brazilian presidents ever.

“Our time has come,” he said in a speech in Copenhagen while presenting Rio’s bid.

Now Mr. da Silva is fighting to stay out of jail.

Still Brazil’s most-watched political figure, Mr. da Silva will face trial for allegedly trying to buy the silence of a key witness in the Petrobras probe. Separately, he has been charged with personally benefiting from the scheme by accepting the use of a luxury property and other perks from companies that won lucrative federal contracts.

Mr. da Silva has denied all accusations.

Now the man whose personal charisma is credited for helping land the Games won’t be attending. Instead, he will be traveling Brazil trying to whip up votes for his embattled Workers’ Party ahead of critical municipal elections in October, a spokesman said.

Mr. da Silva’s struggles are emblematic of Brazil’s turn of fortune in the years leading up to the Rio Games.

“Nothing is harder for a nation than being sold on fantasy and illusions,” said José Matias-Pereira, a political scientist from University of Brasília, about the changes since 2009. “The frustration is just too sad.”

Write to Paulo Trevisani at paulo.trevisani@wsj.com

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