On the Possibility/Threat of Impeachment in Brazil

I thought I’d wade into the impeachment issue that has come up in Brazil in the past few months. The short version of the (very complicated) story is that a corruption scandal involving the state-run Petrobras, kickbacks, and embezzlement has emerged in the last several months. This scandal, alongside a weakening economy, has devastated Dilma Rousseff’s popularity/escalated discontent with her government. Adding to the complicated picture is the fact that, with the executive currently weakened by unpopularity and scandal, various political actors and blocs in Congress are jostling to assert more power. The result has been growing calls for impeachment, rising in March and April and returning again this week after the opposition party PSDB [which has lost elections to the PT’s Lula in 2002 and 2006, and then to Rousseff in 2010 and 2014] held its annual convention.

Greg and Boz have covered it some. Boz read Dilma’s interview this week as overly-defensive; perhaps it was, though that was not the sense I got from it. It rather seemed to me to be her responding to the emphatic (partisan) calls for her to leave office with an equally emphatic refusal to do so.

Like Greg, I’m not sure what is the impeachable offense here, and neither are most in Brazil. The general sentiment has been, “we don’t like her presidency,” but as Greg points out, that’s not an impeachable offense. The closest it comes is that Dilma was once on the board of directors for Petrobrás during part of the period of the corrupt practices that have since emerged, but that’s problematic for a couple of reasons. First, a single seat on the the board of directors is in no way, shape, or form an indicator of some sense of totalizing power. Additionally, her position was also largely ceremonial, as she was the Minister of Energy at the time, and thus was automatically appointed to the board. The likelihood of her overseeing some grand scheme of corruption in such a position as just one of many members of the board is even more improbable; while her detractors allege some sort of powerful, hidden machinations on her part, such language seems more of fantasy to depose her than of a reality, and such concerns never popped up in the mid-2000s when she was actually serving on the board. And finally, the reality is that the corruption scandal that has hit her government hard dates back to the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and continued under Lula da Silva (2003-2011) before finally coming to light in Rousseff’s second term. That this is a scandal that not only transcends administrations, but crosses partisan lines (Cardoso’s PSDB and Lula’s/Rousseff’s PT are major political antagonists) suggests this is a systemic problem, not something specifically borne of malpractice on her part as either president or Minister of Energy. To be clear, this is not some partisan defense of Dilma, but it just is not clear what the impeachable offense is, nor have I heard or read an articulate, clearly-defined case for her impeachment beyond either partisan politics or general discontent with the political system in Brazil.

I’ve heard some say she should be impeached on the grounds of corruption – not on anything specific, but based on its sheer existence coming to light (though it’s not like this is the first corruption scandal, given that there have been major allegations of corruption under virtually every president since the return to democracy in 1985) under Dilma’s administration. The charge basically being, even if it has been around for some time (and it has – Fernando Collor was forced to leave office over corruption, and the administrations of both Cardoso and Lula faced corruption scandals, to say nothing of the numerous allegations surrounding even more numerous members of both chambers of Congress over the past several decades), she did not do anything to stop it, and that’s an impeachable offense.

But this logic does not exactly hold up, either. If Congress does go after her for the vaguely defined existence of “corruption” and/or her failure to act on it, it will be more than a bit cynical. For instance, Renan Calheiros, the current president of the Senate, has faced no fewer than four charges of corruption that were brought to hearing on the Senate floor in 2007 (and is currently under investigation again); while the Senate voted to not continue the investigation, the vote to stop proceedings occurred through secret ballot, leaving many Brazilians furious and suggesting backroom deal-making that itself smelled of corrupt bargains. [The outrage was strong enough that Congress ended up eliminating the secret ballot on ethics violation votes – after Calheiros had escaped impeachment hearings himself.] If the Chamber of Deputies brought forth articles for impeachment, it is quite possible that Calheiros, as president of Senate, would play a key role in the trial. A man who actually faced four charges of corruption and maintained his office through questionable voting overseeing a trial based on vaguely-defined corruption would be beyond cynical and driven by institutional and/or partisan politics, rather than actual concern for the law.

And the partisanship issue here cannot be overstated, and in fact undermines the case for impeachment not just legally, but chronologically. In my own research, I’ve encountered calls for Dilma’s impeachment going back to 2012 and popping up both in the 2013 protests and in 2014. Such calls inevitably come from middle- and upper-middle class sectors in the Southeast, and especially from São Paulo. Of course, these sectors are largely white and well-off and bristle at the PT’s ties to the poor, be it through social programs that have aided the impoverished Northeast, through programs like affirmative action designed to reduce racial inequality in Brazil, or just through the fact that Lula was a former union-leader without higher education [though anecdotal, the number of times I personally heard conservative middle-class sectors zero in on his background as a laborer and so-called “lack of education” as the reason they hated him were far too many to count]. In other words, these calls for impeachment well pre-date any actual scandal or weakened economy; that they do so suggests that this is less a concern of institutional abuse of power, and more a case of partisan hatred.

As for general discontent with the political system, it is a problematic system (though point to a political system that is problem-free). The multi-party blocs in Congress require coalition building in the vein of parliamentarism, while Brazil still has a popularly-elected president at the head of the executive branch. This is, suffice to say, a unique system that some have come to call “presidential parliamentarism.” In grad school, I read several articles debating not only whether presidential parliamentarism could work in Brazil (most were skeptical), but whether it could work at all anywhere (several were still skeptical). One of the big questions/issues raised is that the very nature of multi-party blocs in Congress facilitate conditions that require the president and/or party leaders in Congress to do backroom deals that are less-than-transparent and often corrupt in order to get legislative agendas through Congress. And it’s not just that Brazil rejected a parliamentary system in 1993, as Greg points out; it has rejected parliamentarism multiple times. When João Goulart became president in 1961 after the resignation of Janio Quadros, the military tried to prevent the succession, fearing Goulart was a “leftist” (at a time where Cold War rhetoric shaped political perceptions). A number of social groups and political actors resisted the military’s efforts to prevent Goulart’s constitutional rise to the presidency. The result was that Goulart became president, but the military and the opposition conservative parties imposed upon him a parliamentary system, with a prime minister and cabinet having to approve his policies. This system remained in place until 1963, when Brazilians overwhelmingly voted to restore full presidential powers to Goulart and abolish this unique arrangement, precisely because it was ineffective. So calls for a parliamentary system now seem a bit misplaced.

Of course, Rousseff and her supporters (or, even more regularly, opponents of the conservative forces calling for her resignation) allege that the opposition is embarking down the road toward a coup. Such concerns aren’t necessarily entirely accurate, but nor are they entirely misplaced, as the opposition is calling for her forced removal before her term is up. Indeed, some people, either unaware of the horrors of the past or unaffected by them (or even supportive of them), were going so far as to call on the military to step in and overthrow the government. This seems highly unlikely, to put it mildly; the military is still dealing with negative perceptions for its dictatorship of 1964-85, and, perhaps more importantly, there is no Cold War context. As a result, the military does not fear a “communist” revolution that requires pre-emptive intervention.

Like Boz, as events and details stand right now, impeachment seems less likely to me. I agree with Greg that opposition politicians, conservative media, and the middle- and upper-classes that have often opposed the PT governments generally will try to make things so difficult and uncomfortable for Dilma that she has to resign. However, given her own strength of will (to say nothing of the fact that, less than a year ago, she won re-election by 3.5 million votes, with 51.6% of the popular vote to the PSDB candidate Aécio Neve’s 48.3% – suggesting that perhaps not all voices are represented in media narratives focusing on calls for impeachment), she seems unlikely to fade away quietly into the night, either. This is a person whom the military tortured during the dictatorship, after all, and who knows how to fight for her politics.

A coup strikes me as even less probable, at least in the traditional sense of the military intervening directly. Indeed, if there is a “coup,” it will not be the traditional coup that was all too common in the 20th century, with the Brazilian military stepping in to “right the ship” repeatedly (1889, 1930, 1937, 1945, 1955, 1961, and then the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, to name just a few examples). If Rousseff is to fall, it seems it would be more of an “institutional coup” a la what happened to Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012, with Congress creating trumped-up charges with no real substance and no real chance for Rousseff to defend herself, while heavily conservative and biased media outlets that have been historically and overwhelmingly anti-PT shape public discourse and perceptions on the issue (anti-governmental language that the international press then uncritically parrots). I think this unlikely, though; rather, what I imagine we will see is a legislative branch strengthening at the expense of the executive, with Rousseff having to basically cede more to the centrist PMDB and its leaders (especially Renan Calheiros of the Senate and Eduardo Cunha, an open critic of Rousseff, in the Chamber of Deputies) and other parties than she would have in other situations. Indeed, it is the PMDB that seems to have the most to gain here; having allied with the PT for the last 13 years, it could withdraw its support, effectively undermining any ability for Rousseff’s presidency to effect her political agenda. Additionally, as the largest party, the PMDB could tentatively offer an alliance with the rightist PSDB in a way that is favorable to the PMDB. In other words, the PMDB, the sole party remaining from Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and a party that has never had a presidential candidate win, could become a “kingmaker” in Congress. A strengthened Congress and/or the withdrawal of the PMDB’s support from the PT’s program, at least for the duration of Dilma’s term, would not necessarily leave Brazilians politically satisfied – after all, anger at Congress (including PMDB politicians like Calheiros) was no small part of the protests of 2013 – but such possibilities and uncertainties do make this a fascinating, if often frustrating, time to be watching Brazilian politics.


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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