BRASÍLIA, Brazil – When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was president of Brazil, he often ordered dishes like goat stomach stew from a warehouse-turned-restaurant in the nation’s capital.
But his hand-picked successor, President Dilma Rousseff, somehow never tried the food at Tia Zelia’s.
“She was always on a diet,” said Maria de Jesus Oliveira da Costa, the namesake of Tia Zelia, where Da Silva often ordered takeout dishes popular with poor Brazilians and hired to cater events during his 2003-2010 presidency.
Rousseff was ousted last week in a contentious Senate vote, her term unceremoniously cut short for illegally shuffling budget funds during a steep economic recession. Her downfall, however, has been greeted with a collective shrug by many of the poor Brazilians who propelled her and Da Silva into office.
To Da Costa and others, Rousseff was a standoffish technocrat, fueling a deep disconnect between her and members of the Workers’ Party.
Unlike the charismatic Da Silva, known widely in Brazil as just “Lula,” Rousseff never connected with average Brazilians. It only got worse with the recession and a series of political scandals that have roiled Latin America’s largest nation.
When Rousseff was removed by the Senate, even many Workers’ Party supporters were glad to see her go, believing it could help the party rebuild.
“Despite all of its problems, ultimately the Workers’ Party got rid of an unpopular administration,” said Lincoln Secco, a history professor at the University of São Paulo and author of a book on the Workers’ Party. “The fact that they were not removed by elections gives them a good narrative to use” in the future.
Like millions of Brazilians who moved into the middle class while Silva was president, the 62-year-old Da Costa saw herself reflected in him. Da Silva went from factory worker and union organizer to president. Da Costa, meanwhile, went from cooking for bricklayers in a slum to serving the country’s powerbrokers.
Remembering the good times, Da Costa’s hope for the future sums up that of millions: “Pray for Lula to come back in the 2018 elections.”
While Da Silva has signaled his intention to run for president in 2018, and even leads in polls, he is dogged by allegations of corruption and will soon be on trial for obstruction of justice in a massive corruption probe roiling the country.
The investigation into billions of dollars in alleged kickbacks at state oil company Petrobras has led to the jailing of several businessmen and politicians, including many with ties to the Workers’ Party. While Rousseff has never been implicated in the sprawling case, many Brazilians blame her and Da Silva because much of the graft happened during their combined 13 years in power.
There is also widespread anger about the recession, a downturn that has meant daily announcements of layoffs and inflation just under 10 percent.
The grim economic landscape is a long way from the peak of popularity of the Workers’ Party, which in the span of a decade was credited with pulling millions of people out of poverty via social works programs and progressive laws like raising the minimum wage.
Still, today the party is clearly weakened. During the nearly yearlong impeachment process against Rousseff, party leaders threatened to use their organizing muscle for massive protests against Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice president who took over as president. While some demonstrations have had tens of thousands of people, they have never reached the level of the anti-Rousseff protests in the years before her ouster.
“The Worker’s Party is in disarray and there is not another party that will fill that gap in the foreseeable future,” said Claudio Couto, a political science professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a São Paulo-based university and think tank.
In the strange world that is Brazilian politics, some party leaders quietly say that Rousseff’s ouster was a gift. Over the last year, her approval ratings hovered around 10 percent, and that likely would have dragged down the ticket in 2018.
With Rousseff out of the way, Da Silva and the party return to the opposition against Temer, who is also unpopular and viewed by many as an illegitimate president. On Wednesday, while declaring the opening of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the new president was drowned out by vociferous boos and chants of “Out with Temer!”
Silva became a national figure as opposition leader, losing the presidency three times before finally winning. Supporters believe that a return to the campaign trail, where he can connect with Brazilians on a personal level, could help him rebuild his reputation and the party’s brand.
The next big test for the party will be in October’s nationwide mayoral elections. The crown jewel of the contests is São Paulo, the nation’s biggest city that is also its economic driver.
São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, a Workers’ Party member, is credited with improving public transportation in the megacity but has also been criticized for narrowing the size of some streets for cars. He is currently polling fourth in a packed field, hoping to get into the top two and force a runoff.
Back in Brasília, Da Costa says that she would gladly serve Temer, if he ever shows up. In the meantime, her political loyalties remain clear and goat stomach stew remains on the menu. “Lula is the future, but we have work to do,” she said.