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BRASILIA, May 4 (Reuters) - A request by Brazil's prosecutor general for a Supreme Court investigation of ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva raises the odds against the ruling Workers Party emerging from scandal in time for the 2018 presidential election, analysts said on Wednesday.
Already hurt by fallout from a massive corruption scheme, and impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, the leftist party is largely resigned to her removal.
Few believe she will escape conviction if the Senate votes next week to suspend her from office and open a trial over alleged budget irregularities, as expected.
But the Workers Party, in power since 2003, has long considered Lula its ace in the hole for future elections.
Rousseff's mentor and a hero to millions of poor voters, Lula remained popular among many even as Brazil's economy entered recession and prosecutors alleged that he may have benefited from kickbacks and obstructed justice in a probe into graft at state oil company Petrobras.
The leftist icon has denied any wrongdoing. But a request by the prosecutor to press charges against him at the Supreme Court - made public on Tuesday - escalates Lula's legal problems, diminishing his ability to rally the party and mount a credible opposition to emboldened rivals.
"Lula is the element that ties everything together," said Paulo Pimenta, a well-known Workers Party congressman from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.
According to documents made public on Tuesday, Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot has charged Lula with participating in a scheme to stop former Petrobras executive Nestor Cervero from collaborating with the sweeping investigation into political kickbacks at the state oil firm.
The Supreme Court must now decide whether to accept the charges against Lula, who was named to a ministerial post by Rousseff in March. Janot also requested an investigation into Rousseff for allegedly seeking to obstruct the Petrobras investigation.
The Supreme Court is the only tribunal permitted to try sitting politicians and ministers. It was already considering whether Lula's nomination was legal, as he already faced charges of money laundering and fraud from a regional prosecutor.
The Supreme Court does not conduct investigations itself, but guides prosecutors and police in the cases before it.
Lula was wildly popular when he left office at the end of his two-term limit in 2010, and he has repeatedly expressed his willingness to run again.
But by "criminalizing" the former president, prosecutors and political opponents could make a third term impossible and undermine a once formidable party base formed around trade unions and leftist social movements.
"A Lula candidacy is what could catalyze them," said Pimenta, referring to working-class voters.
Analysts at Arko Advice, a political consultancy in the capital Brasilia, said the request for a Supreme Court investigation of Lula signaled "a definitive weakening" of the former metal worker and union leader.
The ex-president "could spend the rest of his political life defending himself," the analysts wrote.
Writing by Paulo Prada; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown