Bad News for Brazilian Democracy
Brazil’s impeachment proceedings, which ended on the last day of August, took five full days in the senate and included a fourteen-hour session with the accused, deposed president Dilma Rousseff. The result of the vote—three to one in favor of impeachment—had been predicted for weeks, with the media keeping score of intended and likely votes. But the fact that the outcome had been foretold did not make this conclusion of Brazil’s eight-month-long impeachment crisis any less spectacular. There were tears on both sides, along with some comedic relief, celebrity sightings, protestors and police outside, plenty of political invective, and a last minute twist.
In the days before the vote, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva worked the phones to build support for Rousseff and activists pressed undecided senators, but these efforts were no match for interim president Michel Temer’s offers of posts in the new government. On the day of the vote itself, pro-Rousseff senators requested that the vote be split into two questions: whether Rousseff should be removed from office, and whether she should be banned from running for office for eight years. Sixty-one senators voted for impeachment (seven more than the fifty-four required), while only forty-two voted to ban her from running; she was thus removed from office but did not suffer any additional sanctions. Brazil has elected four presidents since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985; Rousseff is now the second to have been impeached.
Temer, Rousseff’s former vice-president and a member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, was quickly sworn in and even embarked on an official trip to China that evening. Ironically, in June a São Paolo electoral court banned him from running for public office—including the office he now holds—for eight years on the grounds that he had contributed funds to his 2014 election campaign in excess of campaign finance limits. He is also still under investigation for several allegations of corruption. Given the outcome of the second vote, Rousseff—to this day one of the few major political figures in Brazil who has never been the target of such investigations—could run for office again tomorrow.
Despite the extended drama, the legal discussion of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” (“crimes de responsabilidade”) with which Rousseff was charged did not take much time. At issue was Dilma’s budgeting maneuvers, in which she shifted some government debt to different fiscal periods—a strategy employed by every Brazilian president in recent history, as well as most governors and mayors. The prosecution and pro-impeachment senators called only two witnesses, and most of them did not attend the questioning of the defense witnesses. Their testimony, in any case, was largely inconsequential, as were previous findings by the Public Ministry and the senate’s own technical staff exonerating Rousseff from criminal malfeasance. Also inconsequential was the tape of a phone call released in May that suggested the impeachment proceedings were politically motivated—designed to shut down ongoing corruption investigations—and indicated that the country’s supreme court, the media, and the military were on board.
Although “fighting corruption” has been the battle cry of the pro-impeachment camp, the debate on the senate floor was not about corruption. After all, a full half of the senators who were present during the vote are themselves indicted or under investigation in the wake of the Petrobras scandal. The president of the lower chamber who initiated the impeachment proceedings, for example, is being investigated for unexplained millions in Swiss bank accounts. Instead, the debate was about the country’s economic crisis, Rousseff’s inability to govern her coalition effectively, and the results of thirteen years of Workers’ Party rule.
Rousseff herself did not shed any tears. An economist by training, well aware that the votes were most likely not going her way, she stoically delivered a defense aimed more at the history books and the broader public than at the senators. She recalled her previous appearance at a show trial during the dictatorship, and the torture she endured as a result. She discussed the Workers’ Party project and policies, and more than once she gave detailed answers about the fiscal crisis that included the global slowdown in commodities, the U.S. Federal Reserve, and climate patterns. To the irritation of her accusers, she repeatedly referred to the proceedings as a “coup” and an affront to the Brazilian population that elected her.
Although supreme court appeals to reverse the vote are possible—as is a Temer impeachment—those seem unlikely prospects. In the end, conservative political forces accomplished through legal proceedings what they could not do at the ballot box: installing a president who will give voice to middle-class resentment of the Workers’ Party redistributive policies and implement neoliberal orthodoxy. In the three months of his interim presidency, Temer quickly introduced stark reductions in social spending, which threaten many key programs, including the country’s system of universal health care. He also abolished several ministries (including the ones dedicated to racial and gender equality) and replaced the cabinet with an all-white, all-male set of ministers from conservative and centrist parties. His announced platform, under the banner of “a bridge to the future,” includes reductions in social spending, a more U.S.-friendly foreign policy, and privatizations. Animating his presidency is the effort to dismantle Brazil’s social welfare state as well as its labor laws, something not even the country’s military dictators tried to do.
Rousseff had, of course, been increasingly embattled and isolated in recent months, unable to satisfy progressive activists and union supporters or international demands for fiscal austerity. She left office a very unpopular president, abandoned by her party’s base and ravaged by the country’s corporate media. But she is also victim of the Workers’ Party strategy, which in its thirteen years of rule has increasingly opted for compromises with centrist parties and accommodated itself to Brazil’s corrupt political system.
Internationally, some Latin American countries condemned the impeachment. Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have threatened to withdraw their embassies; Nicaragua and Cuba do not recognize the new government. Spain’s Podemos party has perhaps gone the furthest, requesting that the EU sever economic and political relations with Brazil.
But looking forward, the new administration’s domestic problems are more pressing. It is not clear that Temer will be able to govern. His dependence on coalitions and promised favors in congress and the senate will make any program difficult to enact. He is an unpopular figure too, and for many Brazilians, an illegitimate president.
Rousseff’s removal was protested over the weekend. Those protests were met with escalating violence, which have fueled still more protests. In São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Porto Alegre, tens of thousands took to the streets to denounce the coup, and the military police has acted with unforgiving force, as documented by independent media activists. Brazilian social movement coalitions are promising increasing opposition in the coming weeks. This is perhaps the greatest irony of Rousseff’s impeachment— that in the hour of defeat progressive forces are finding unity and coherence, and connections between older organized sectors, such as unions, and younger generations of activists. A long overdue process of rethinking the country’s electoral left has begun in earnest.
Still, August 31 will stand as a sad day in Brazil’s history. Many of the social gains of the last two decades—Bolsa Família, the cash transfer program, along with affirmative action policies and construction of housing for the poor—will likely be reversed or severely reduced, despite the fact that in recent elections Brazilians have voted against politicians running on conservative platforms. Perhaps more importantly, the impeachment sets several precedents: that unpopular presidents can be removed from office on the thinnest of procedural grounds; that the country can operate according to a de facto parliamentarianism, but without its institutional safeguards; that democratic institutions do not matter as much as popularity; that the senate is less a place for debate than for political deals; and that laws can be bent to suit the interests of the powerful. Legitimacy in this context is impossible. Even political opponents of Rousseff and her Workers’ Party must recognize that it is Brazil’s democracy, not just the left, that will suffer the consequences.