In Brazil, Is Impeachment the Answer?

Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, is facing impeachment following a vote in the lower house of Congress on April 17. (Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)

A series of missteps, mismanagement, and misfortunes have brought Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to the threshold of the fate she now faces: impeachment.

“Dilma has been the amateur hour in terms of politics for the last two years,” said Peter Schechter, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “Every decision that she made was pretty much the wrong decision.”

Brazil’s lower house of Congress voted on April 17 to impeach Rousseff sending her toward a virtually predictable exit from office.

“She postponed reforms, got rid of Ministers who could have helped her, and last the dramatic miscalculation of trying to shield Lula from a judicial investigation was certainly the nail in the coffin,” Schechter said, referring to Rousseff’s unsuccessful attempt to reportedly protect her mentor and predecessor—Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—from a corruption investigation by appointing him her Chief of Staff.

“What it did was it coalesced all of the opposition forces, which could have been either coopted or faced down,” Schechter said, “but after that it was impossible.”  

“The greatest crime committed in Brazil,” he added, “was the crime of postponing, day after day, the political reforms that the country needs to become the potent leader that it could be.”

A coup against democracy?

Rousseff’s supporters have denounced the impeachment effort as “a coup against democracy.”

Ricardo Sennes, the Nonresident Senior Brazil Fellow in the Arsht Center, disagreed. “They are respecting the constitution,” he said, noting that Brazil’s constitution clearly cites a need for proof of “crimes of duties” to start impeachment proceedings. “You don’t need a perfect judicial procedure—you need fact and the political will,” he added.

Rousseff is accused of mismanaging fiscal accounts. “That would probably not be enough grounds to impeach her if she was popular and Brazil’s economy was in a better place”, said Jason Marczak, Director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Arsht Center.

Rousseff has not been charged with corruption, but many of those who voted to oust her are under investigation for corruption, fraud or electoral crimes. Vice President Michel Temer, who is expected to stand in for Rousseff if she is investigated, and replace her if she is impeached, could himself face impeachment over the same accusations levelled against the President.

Next in line for the top job is Rousseff’s political nemesis, House Speaker Eduardo Cunha. He is charged with corruption and money laundering in the scandal involving the state oil giant Petrobras. He also faces an ethics inquiry over undeclared Swiss bank accounts. Is Brazil then in for a period of protracted instability?

“It sounds counterintuitive that immediately after a vote to impeach the President you would have greater political stability, but the counterintuitive is actually the fact in Brazil,” said Marczak.

Questions surrounding Rousseff’s future have distracted from efforts to forge political unity and implement critical economic policies, he said, adding that will change with Rousseff out of the picture.

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What’s next?

The upper house of Congress must next decide whether to accept the impeachment motion. If a simple majority—forty-one of the eighty-one Senators—approves, which is likely, Rousseff will have to step aside for a maximum of 180 days while the charges against her are investigated. Temer will then assume power on an interim basis.

If, following the investigation, two-thirds of the Senate agrees to impeach Rousseff she will be permanently forced out of office and Temer will serve out the remainder of her term, which runs until the next election in 2018.

“It is a foregone conclusion that [Rousseff] will not resume office when she leaves temporarily, and this presents an opportunity to consolidate political forces and to provide greater stability,” said Marczak.  “No politician and the people themselves don’t want the continuation of that protracted political process.”

Peter Schechter, Jason Marczak, and Ricardo Sennes spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Is this, as President Rousseff’s supporters claim, “a coup against democracy”?

Sennes: I don’t agree for two reasons. First, the Brazilian constitution has a specific section that defines impeachment as a political process, not a judicial process. It requires [proof of committing] crimes of duties. You need political demand behind an impeachment process, but you also need to have a strong element of crimes of duty. You don’t need a perfect judicial procedure—you need fact and the political will.

Second, is there 100 percent consensus? No, there isn’t. You have important people from civil society, the business community, the national bar association, saying Dilma committed a crime. Others say she didn’t. But since an important part of society says she did, I would say this is not a coup d’état. They are respecting the constitution. 

Schechter: Like in everything in politics, there are winners and losers. The losers here lost badly. The losers are the PT party [Rousseff’s Workers’ Party], not only Dilma, and they are facing a potential cataclysm in terms of their existence. For them this is a fight for survival. The moments of tension and disunity are not over.

Marczak: This is not a constitutional coup, but at the same time the technical reasons for which the impeachment is being pursued—the mismanagement of fiscal accounts—has been committed by many politicians who have not been impeached. She has done this on a much larger scale, but still it is a relatively technical issue on which she is being impeached.

If she was popular, if the economy was doing well, she would not be impeached right now. Those who say this is a constitutional coup could point to the fact that the only reason that this really has momentum right now is because of reasons that are not technically governed by the constitution.

Q: While President Rousseff herself has not been charged with corruption, many of the lawmakers who voted against her are under investigation for corruption, fraud or electoral crimes. Vice President Michel Temer himself could face impeachment over the same accusations levelled against President Rousseff. Speaker Eduardo Cunha is charged with corruption and money laundering in the kickback scandal involving Petrobras, and he also faces an ethics inquiry over undeclared Swiss bank accounts. Given this reality, who and what are Brazil’s alternatives and is Brazil headed for a period of protracted instability?

Sennes: We cannot have specific judgments about the impeachment because some of the congressmen who are involved in the impeachment process are being pursued for a crime. Those who are accused and proven guilty are in jail. Those who are accused and are not in jail are, as of now, innocent because they have not been convicted. The issue that these people are facing accusations is important and must be addressed by the judiciary, but it does not change the impeachment process in itself.

I understand that Cunha will be the next [target] because he is facing an ethics committee investigation in the lower house [of Congress], which will probably expel him from Congress. He is also facing accusations in the Supreme Court. I think Cunha will not finish his term and could probably even face jail.

We do have instability in the sense that it is not clear which majority group will run the country right now. But it is not institutional instability, it is political instability.

Moreover, even though there are concerns about the economic crisis, all the polls indicate that the people support the economic costs of the Car Wash operation [the investigation of corruption allegations at Petrobras] and want the process to continue till the end.

Marczak: It sounds counterintuitive that immediately after a vote to impeach the President you would have greater political stability, but the counterintuitive is actually the fact in Brazil. Because there has been so much questioning about Dilma’s future this has hindered greater political consolidation and the ability to move forward with implementing the economic policies that are critical to Brazil’s success.

It is a foregone conclusion that she will not resume office when she leaves temporarily, and this presents an opportunity to consolidate political forces and to provide greater stability. No politician and the people themselves don’t want the continuation of that protracted political process.

Schechter: The greatest crime committed in Brazil was the crime of postponing, day after day, the political reforms that the country needs to become the potent leader that it could be. That crime could be solved by a new government that creates sufficient political movement to be able to pass some of the necessary reforms. That is not a foregone conclusion, but what is a foregone conclusion is that Dilma’s government was not and certainly would not have been able to pass such things. The quicker we can get to getting needed reforms done, the better Brazil is in the long term.

Q: Has the opposition to Dilma dented support for her Workers’ Party as well?

Sennes: The Workers’ Party has been suffering a lot, but even though Dilma and Lula have been leading a broad coalition for the last fourteen years, the PT has never controlled more than twelve percent of the Brazilian parliament. This is important because people sometimes think about Lula and the PT like [the late President] Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or the Peronists in Argentina or [President Michelle] Bachelet in Chile or [former President José] Mujica in Uruguay. In all of these cases the party behind the President had the majority, or almost the majority [in parliament]. In the case of the PT, it’s a middle-sized party. We are expecting a reduction of the PT presence in City Halls and even the federal legislature.

Lula continues to be the most popular politician in Brazil even though there is this storm around him and the PT. They are deeply involved in corruption, but at the same time they delivered, for a part of the population, concrete material gains. Housing programs have been implemented, there are scholarships for the poor, a global event [the Olympics] has been planned.

How will people deal with this contradiction? Will they say the PT is the devil? No. Some of them will say PT has something positive to deliver, while the others will say it is impossible to have the PT lead with this level of corruption. That is the PT challenge. How does it rebuild the narrative? If you think about the PT two years from now, when the corruption issues are no longer there, will the people remember it for the corruption or for the other stuff?

Marczak: There was this love affair with what the PT was able to do in the last decade. The real challenge for Lula and the PT overall is that the PT is associated with the strong growth that occurred during that time. A lot of that growth would have happened regardless of which political party was in power. The challenge for the PT is that if Lula were to come back [and run for the presidency] he wouldn’t have the same flexibility in being able to implement the policies as he had during his [initial] term in office.

Schechter: I have spent twenty years doing political campaigns, and I have learned never to say never. Don’t ever think that a party or a politician is finished, particularly not in Latin America. There are nine lives to every politician in Latin America and I think Lula has a very good chance to come back.

Q: Had Rousseff not moved to protect Lula would the outcome of the impeachment vote been any different?

Schechter: Dilma has been the amateur hour in terms of politics for the last two years. Every decision that she made was pretty much the wrong decision. She postponed reforms, got rid of Ministers who could have helped her, and last the dramatic miscalculation of trying to shield Lula from a judicial investigation was certainly the nail in the coffin. What it did was it coalesced all of the opposition forces, which could have been either coopted or faced down, but after that it was impossible.

Marczak: She would have been impeached either way. One of her many challenges is the fact that she didn’t know how to build the political relationships in Brasília. She didn’t have those political relationships with Congress. Without that, she has seen a steady erosion of support from the alliance of parties supporting the PT. This was very much a political vote as it was a technical and constitutional vote.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.