Brazil President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer
By: Aaron Schneider and Rafael R. Ioris
Brazil risks returning Latin America to the days before democratic elections were an acceptable way to debate political platforms and manage the smooth succession of governments. For decades, observers of countries in the region described politics as an “impossible game” – the phrase Argentine scholar Guillermo O’Donnell used to describe his own country. In highly unequal societies, parties on the Left have an electoral majority in their core constituency of working class and poor voters. Unable to win open elections, the Right comes to power through coups, by removing rivals using dubious legal mechanisms, or holding elections that exclude the Left. Subsequent governments lack mandates and face rising opposition, but when elections are once again called, the Left wins, starting the cycle again. In recent years, traditionally oligarchic countries have slipped into this trap, as in the 2009 Honduras coup and the 2012 Paraguayan legislative coup. The removal of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) would mark a dangerous confirmation that such democratic reversals are once again acceptable.
The truth is that none of this is necessary. Parties with clearly Right-wing agendas won free and fair elections last year in Argentina as well as 2010 in Chile, and parties to the Right of the PT governed Brazil before 2003. Though the region remains highly unequal and the Left retains much of its base, macroeconomic downturn and the organizational exhaustion of multiple mandates open electoral room for the Right. In Brazil, it would have appeared that such a shift was beginning at least as far back as 2013, as Rousseff reacted poorly to protests targeting World Cup expenditures and government missteps in reviving a slowing economy. Yet, the Right could not capitalize, and she won reelection a year later.
The losing candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Senator Aécio Neves, refused to accept the loss and called for Rousseff’s removal. To fan the flames of street protests, an oligopolistic media controlled by conservative family empires has maintained a steady media barrage of scandal and innuendo. Ample fuel for such attacks exists in corruption reaching the apex of the political establishment, including top members of the PT, but the resulting erosion of political discourse has shocked observers with levels of polarization tinged with racism and classism long-thought surpassed in Brazilian civil society.
The judiciary, led by investigative judges granted significant autonomy in the Brazilian system, has done an impressive job revealing the extent of kickbacks, especially in the few large construction companies that dominate governmental contracts. Seemingly untouchable CEOs and top politicians have gone to jail, an image never seen before in Brazil, and all too rarely seen in supposedly mature democracies. Yet, the judicial branch has largely failed to maintain its image of probity – leaking evidence intentionally, using indefinite imprisonment to extract confessions and plea bargains, failing to act on (and hiding) evidence of corruption among opposition leaders, and perhaps too aggressively targeting PT leaders, for example staging a heavily armed, press-filled detention of PT-icon and former president (2003-2010) Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva.
The people of Brazil know that high level corruption is rooted in a form of capitalism dominated by oligopolistic companies in close relationship with politicians competing in an electoral system that privileges massive spending. Yet, while corruption among the elite is rampant, it could not be used as the legal justification for expelling President Rousseff. She is practically unique among the political class – there are no corruption charges against her. Instead, the Right has seized on accounting mechanisms she used to pad her year-end accounts, breaking a fiscal responsibility law that sets rigid targets for deficits.
Jurists debate whether accounting tricks are grounds for impeachment; political scientists note that the process is political, not legal. Congressional deputies seem to recognize the political character of the exercise. In the actual vote to advance the impeachment process, they hardly referenced the charges, casting their vote instead for god, family, and even the memory of the officer who had tortured Rousseff when she was jailed during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime. The legal justification for the impeachment is weak, but the politics are clear. The Right was unable to dislodge the Workers’ Party from power, even with the economy in freefall, a weak presidential candidate, and the Workers’ Party seemingly without a project to renew its mandate and get back on track.
According to legal rules, the Senate will soon vote to initiate impeachment deliberations that can last up to six months. During this period, Rousseff will exit the presidency and the Vice President Michel Temer of the catch-all Party of Brazilian Democracy (PMDB) will take over. If the Senate votes by a two-thirds margin to impeach Rousseff, Temer will serve out the rest of her term until 2018 or until early elections are called. He and his allies will claim a mandate based on the fiscal malfeasance of Rousseff and the corruption revealed by the judicial investigations.
Yet, Temer and his allies have more on their mind than anti-corruption and fiscal probity. They would have to, as Temer signed off on some of the same fiscal maneuvers that supposedly make Rousseff impeachable. Further, he has serious accusations of corruption under investigation in the Federal Supreme Court, as do many others, including Temer’s party-ally and leader of the impeachment process in the Congress, Eduardo Cunha, who is under investigation for such acts as embezzlement and hiding illegal monies in Swiss bank accounts.
The real intentions of Temer and his allies were announced in a PMDB document entitled “Bridge to the Future.” In it, they promise to cut spending, target social programs, liberalize labor markets, and limit pension benefits. To build the legislative coalition to implement these policies, Temer appears poised to bring key opposition figures into his government, namely the candidates Rousseff defeated in elections in 2010 and 2014. Meanwhile, the judicial branch has continued with its apparently laser-like focus on finding corruption within the Workers’ Party, especially a charge that will stick to Lula, the still-popular PT ex-President who has indicated plans to run in 2018 and in the event of early elections.
In short, Brazil appears on the cusp of a Right-wing governing agenda that lost in the polls, imposed after a legal artifice removes a president, and to be ratified in elections in which the main Left-wing candidate is excluded. In the short term, this gambit may succeed. There appears to be little chance of Rousseff holding her office, Temer already appears to have the legislative majority he would need to push through his program, and most observers doubt the PT could win the next election.
In the medium term, Brazilian democracy will suffer. An impeachment-imposed Temer government would lack a mandate, and a Right elected in truncated elections would appear to embrace their inability to come to power through normal electoral means. Bad for Brazilian democracy, it could be even worse for Latin America, confirming the pattern revealed in Honduras and Paraguay of a conservative backlash willing to use any artifice to remove Left governments and limit elections to acceptable alternatives. The hemisphere will have witnessed the political elite of the largest country in the region racing to replay the impossible game. It is a game that nobody can win.