Impeachment vs. Impeachable Offenses

Boz responds to my thoughts on impeachment yesterday, and raises a point worth clarifying:

While it doesn’t live up to the democratic ideal, impeachment is almost always more of a political than a legal question.

1) Does the public want the president impeached?
2) Do the president’s opponents have the votes in the legislature to win an impeachment fight?

For those who try to measure political stability, those questions matter far more than whether the president has committed a violation of the constitution that meets the legal definition of impeachment.

Importantly, while most constitutions define reasons for impeachment, there isn’t any check on legislatures (other than voters in the next election) to make sure that they only impeach under those defined circumstances. Congresses can impeach with impunity. That was certainly a lesson from Paraguay, where President Lugo’s 2012 impeachment was seen as without basis, but wasn’t defined as a coup by most governments in the world.

To be clear, I do not think that just because there may not be anything to impeach Dilma for does not mean she will not be impeached. [And to be fair to Boz, I left the issue vague/undefined, so his reading was not uncharitable.] Indeed, I fully agree with Boz that impeachment can still happen, even if there is not an impeachable offense uncovered. However, I think the question of impeachment with impeachable charges vs. impeachment for the sake of removing a politician is an important distinction [and I do not mean to suggest Boz thinks otherwise]. As I mentioned yesterday, the Paraguayan Congress’s impeachment and removal from office of Fernando Lugo on the flimsiest and vaguest of charges in a process that was a mockery of due process is a recent and powerful example of how that can work.

This is why media narratives about impeachment matter so much, especially in a country whose mass media is overwhelmingly run by conservative elites/outlets based in the Southeast, targeting the middle and upper classes and the region that historically and comparatively is much better off than the rest of Brazil. These outlets have by and large spent well over 25 years doing their best to paint the PT and more left-leaning parties in the worst light possible [though given its presence on the national political stage since Lula’s loss in the 1989 elections, a loss in no small part shaped by O Globo’s highly questionable, if not outright manipulative, coverage], even while overlooking political issues like corruption in parties like the PSDB, which these outlets and many in their target audience support (explicitly or implicitly).

But that is also why it is worth highlighting the lack of an apparent impeachable offense. As I wrote in 2012,

the impeachment has revealed a true institutional threat to electoral politics and checks and balances in Paraguay; if Congress can remove somebody they do not like that quickly, it not only undermines the people’s power in choosing their presidents; it also undermines the power of the president himself, at least greatly reducing (if not eliminating) the checks and balances that are constitutionally supposed to define the dynamics of power between the Paraguayan President and Congress. The fact that this impeachment was successful simultaneously establishes the precedent for Congress to annul the people’s choice for president and grants Congress considerable power over the President.

This understanding of the politicization of impeachment would hold if Dilma were impeached without any actual impeachable offenses being brought forth, just as it would hold for any case in which impeachment is used as a political, rather than a legal, tool. To impeach a president (or any high-ranking political figure) over partisan opposition is simultaneously a considerable blow to the public power to elect leaders and to the function of checks and balances in democratic regimes.

It is not that protesting there is nothing impeachable (and again, that is as it stands right now – one never knows what could be uncovered later) means there will not or cannot be an impeachment. Rather, it is to call attention to the ways in which media shape public perception and political processes, the ways in which legislatures act, and the ways in which Congress, the media, and the public itself can ultimately undermine democratic institutions through partisan antagonism that abuses legal processes like impeachment as they’re defined.


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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