Impeaching Brazilian President Rousseff Will Cement a Crooked System

A demonstrator participates in a protest against Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, in Brasília on March 13. Nationwide protests called for Rousseff’s impeachment. (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)

Brazil inched one step closer to impeaching President Dilma Rousseff on March 29 when a main coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), officially parted ways with the government. A vote is scheduled in the lower chamber of Congress for mid-April; with most PMDB votes now against Rousseff, the impeachment will likely be approved and will set in motion a trial of the President in the Senate. Many in Brazil have welcomed the move, considering it another step in the fight against government corruption. But in isolation, impeaching the President hardly upends the perverted political system under which Brazilians live right now. In fact, unless impeachment comes with broader political reform, the system will just perpetuate.

The Brazilian government is not innocent. Originally elected under the banner of ethical behavior, the Labor Party (PT) has profoundly disappointed. Rousseff is part of a group that has, at best, enabled—and, at worst, enlarged—Brazil’s entrenched corruption networks. As much as it promoted social inclusion and positive change, PT has also been accused of participating in many a dishonest scheme—the large bribery, kickback, and money laundering operation inside the national oil company Petrobras just being the latest example. 

Rousseff and other PT leaders are playing with fire by seeming to do whatever it takes to hold on to power. The recent appointment of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for a cabinet position, which occurred days after he was detained by police for questioning in the midst of a corruption investigation, was a political miscalculation.

Lula, as he is popularly known, is indeed a better negotiator than Rousseff; a year ago, the appointment might have helped facilitate relations with Congress and voters. But amidst today’s polarization, the move was widely seen as a strategy to keep Lula away from justice, as sitting members of government can only be tried by the Supreme Court in Brazil. The appointment not only backfired; historians may pinpoint this moment as the kiss of death for Rousseff’s presidency. The government is now seen by the population and almost all former allies as too tainted to be part of.

But impeaching Rousseff is not the silver bullet for Brazil’s political quagmire. There are serious questions about the credibility of the process underway. Impeachment is a political trial and Brazilians no longer trust their politicians. Ask most Brazilians what they think of those in charge of the impeachment vote and the answer will likely be that the PMDB and most other parties in Congress have little to no legitimacy in trying to oust this, or any, government. PMDB members are themselves involved in the same corruption schemes, and the number of accused members keeps growing.

A recently released list of people who reportedly received funds from one of the companies under corruption investigation at Petrobras includes roughly 300 politicians. (The legality of these funds has yet to be determined.) Many of these politicians are household names who have occupied public office for decades. They have long been, willingly or not, part of the same system of too-close-for-comfort alliances between large corporations and political parties now under scrutiny in Brazil.

Instead of focusing on getting Brazil out of the hole the country is in, politicians are panicking about their own political survival. These could be the very people taking over the country if Rousseff is swiftly removed via impeachment. Under the current proceedings, Vice President Michel Temer, a member of PMDB, would rise to the presidency, and a new coalition would be formed in Congress. According to press reports, negotiations for such a coalition—as well as a new cabinet—are already under way.

One wonders if this is exactly what the old political system wants. An impeachment allows political leaders and their machines renewed strength in Brazilian politics and potentially leaves some breathing space to shift attention away from accusations levelled against them. It also avoids the prospect of new elections, the results of which are unpredictable.

The Rousseff government is fully aware of the state of popular distrust in Congress and is characterizing the impeachment proceedings as a coup attempt. Rousseff can rightly argue that, officially, the impeachment is not even about corruption—she is being accused of fiscal accounting violations, and has not been charged or convicted of any crimes at this point.

The same discourse is also feeding groups that are just as fierce—albeit smaller—in their defense of the government. These counter-movements brought more than 200,000 people to the streets a few weeks ago. Many participants are not PT or Rousseff or even Lula supporters, they are simply wary of Congress’ maneuvering and afraid of disrupting the democratic process in Brazil.

Amidst all the polarization and uncertainty, what is clear is that the Brazilians have very few trusted leaders right now. Impeaching Rousseff, in itself, will not change a broken system. To the contrary: if it indeed allows for a more stable coalition of forces to be formed under the current Congress, it might perpetuate the crooked structure that is already in place. The political system needs serious reform. Brazil deserves nothing less.

Andrea Murta is an Associate Director in the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.