An uncertain new start for BrazilLast week Brazil put an end to the 13-year reign of the Workers’ Party with the ouster of former president Dilma Rousseff. An overwhelming majority, 61 out of 81 senators, voted for the impeachment of Rousseff, with only 20 voting against it. She was charged with fiscal mismanagement during her tenure. The end of her presidency presents a new political moment in Brazil’s democratic history as a new president, Michel Temer, the former vice-present from a center-right ideological orientation, takes the helm, promising important shifts in the economic direction of the nation.
Immersed in a long and far-reaching political crisis since 2014, Brazil’s change of government could bring about a much-needed stability in Brazilian politics. In spite of the recent turnover in leadership, much doubt remains concerning the ability of the new government to produce meaningful changes.
The removal of a president from office, traumatic as it was in Rousseff’s case, is not a new occurrence in Brazil, nor does it represent a complete institutional disruption. To the contrary, an impeachment by its very design is a legal mechanism to impose checks on the president and guarantees the preservation of a constitutional order. The problem for Brazil is that the use of this mechanism has become a norm rather than the exception. Two out of the four presidents to hold office since Brazil’s transition to democracy have been impeached.
Rousseff and her party have been crafting an overly dramatic account of her impeachment ordeal for their own benefit. By her account, the process that started in December of 2015 tells the sordid tale of a democratically elected president being overthrown by a “parliamentary coup” orchestrated by group of corrupt politicians who were unhappy with the social policies of the Workers’ Party. This storyline, apart from being quite detached from reality, hides the complexities of a political landscape that has been largely shaped since 2014 by an acrimonious presidential election campaign, Brazil’s economic meltdown, and the ongoing monumental corruption probe that continues to deliver setbacks to Brazil’s political class.
In 2014, thanks to a severe economic recession, Rousseff’s reelection bid was in a far less favorable context than her first electoral victory in 2010. In an effort to boost her chances of reelection, she autocratically appropriated financial assets from public banks totalling of US$20 billion to prop up the social programs that could be easily translated into votes. After winning reelection by a narrow margin of less than 3 million votes, the ensuing firestorm of fiscal-electoral fraud drained Rousseff of her political power. Her political fate of impeachment was all but sealed.
The myths surrounding Rousseff’s impeachment are many. First, the impeachment process, which led to the longest plenary sessions in the democratic history of the Brazilian National Congress, was not a “parliamentary coup.” The impeachment procedures, fully backed by the Brazilian Supreme Court, were amply debated and gave Rousseff plenty of opportunities to defend herself. Second, Temer is not an illegitimate president lacking democratic credentials. He ran in the 2014 election as Rousseff’s vice president on the same ticket, and together the pair won around 54 million votes. Third, the argument that all previous Brazilian presidents have committed the same fiscal crimes as Rousseff is patently false. The Fiscal Responsibility Law Rousseff violated only became effective in 2001 and therefore is only applicable to Rousseff and her predecessor. Finally, the Brazilian National Congress should not shy away from its constitutional mandate of checks-and-balances just because several members of congress are currently under investigation for corruption.
While it is clear that the democratic constitutional order has remained intact with the end of the impeachment, Temer’s next two years in power are likely to be demanding. Expectations are low that he will be able to loosen the political paralysis. But this does not give the new president a free pass when it comes to addressing the economy and political corruption. Focusing primarily on economic reforms is smart, but ignoring the corruption would be political suicide for Temer.
The difficulties Temer faces in the next couple of years are many, not the least of which is creating enough of a coalition in the National Congress to approve much needed economic reforms aimed at freezing public spending and encouraging public debt reduction. He will endure opposition from his own party, the Brazilian Party of Democratic Mobilization (PMDB), which operates under the influence of strong local bosses who often put their narrow interests before the nation’s interests. But the most serious political problem facing Temer’s government is the ongoing corruption probes. It will only become increasingly difficult for the new government to distance itself from scandals involving close political allies and members of the cabinet.
Clearly, Brazil’s political instability does not simply disappear with Rousseff’s departure. Political tensions may have been temporarily reduced, but without a deep transformation, Brazil could continue to experience institutional paralysis. This scenario resembles the period after Brazil’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, when the country lacked strong political leadership while pressure for changes increased.
In this uncertain scenario, democracy will remain the only viable political option for most Brazilians, even though it comes with a healthy dose of frustration at how Brazilian democracy has remained both shallow and narrow.
*The author is a professor at Hankuk University’s Graduate School of International and Area Studies.
Helder Ferreira do Vale