After meeting with the Minister of the Supreme Federal Tribunal to discuss the possibility of impeachment, the president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (the “lower” house of Brazil’s bicameral Congress), Eduardo Cunha, has announced that his party, the Partido Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, PMDB), has broken its coalition with President Dilma Rousseff and is now operating as an opposition party.
This is a not-insignificant shift. The PMDB is the biggest party in Brazil, and tends to be considered “centrist,” though given the party’s size, that’s a semi-misleading characteristic. While some in the PMDB lean toward more progressive issues, others lean much further to the right, meaning the party is more heterogeneous than either the initials or the characterization as a party of the “center” indicate. However, it is that size that makes the withdrawal of the PMDB’s support for Dilma a major issue. As I noted before, given the nature of presidential parliamentarism in Brazil, the president relies on coalition-building to pass her/his legislative agenda. With the PMDB withdrawing its support and serving as an opposition voice (joining the rightisth PSDB and Democratas parties, among others), it will be far more difficult for Dilma to get any of her desired policies that require Congressional approval passed through Congress.
This shift does not necessarily indicate impeachment is imminent, however. According to reports, the meeting with the TSE over the issue of impeachment found that it would be “difficult,” in no small part due to the fact that the House would need to muster 342 votes (out of 513) to move toward impeachment.
That’s not to say impeachment is less likely; indeed, with the PMDB now functioning as the opposition to Dilma’s PT government and coalition, it marks a significant rupture with the government. However, there are several other likely factors in play here. On the one hand, given how much Dilma’s popularity has sunk amidst emergent corruption scandals (that again well pre-date her administration) and economic slowdown (that has occurred under her administration), the PMDB could be simply abandoning a sinking ship, trying to sever its connection with an unpopular government. More interestingly, the PMDB could also be setting up a situation where it is more autonomous in an attempt to field a seriois presidential candidate in 2018. In the past, the PMDB has been content to form coalitions with other parties in order to gain a greater role in the Cabinet. Indeed, the last time the PMDB had a presidential candidate was in 1994, when Orestes Quércia ran (and received only 4.4% of the vote). This break with the government could be the PMDB’s first step to have a greater presence in the presidential elections, rather than operating as a “king-maker” as it has over the past 21 years.
What is not certain is that there will be a unified bloc against Dilma. While PMDB now joins the PSDB, Democratas, some in the PP, and others, this is far from a homogeneous group in things as basic as the function of the state, social policies, economics, etc. Indeed, with the PMDB relatively “late” to the opposition, it’s quite possible that there will be multiple, highly-fractured opposition voices as well. In other words, the PMDB’s abandonment of the PT does not mean that the opposition will suddenly be coherent or unified. Indeed, it will be interesting to see what the fallout is within the PMDB, too; given its sheer size, and the unpopularity of Cunha among many, it is not clear that his decision to abandon the PT reflects a large number of voices in his own party.
Whether that shift leads to an end to the back-room deals that have plagued presidential parliamentarism is less clear – I’m inclined to say no, simply because now the PMDB is working with other parties in contexts where such deal-making can happen. No matter what, though, the most recent development will be worth watching, as it could have considerable long-term effects on Brazilian politics. What is immediately certain is that, while impeachment is still some way off, the PMDB has effectively asserted its power in a way that will greatly weaken Dilma’s (and the executive branch’s) power for the remaining 3 years of her term (unless something brings the PMDB back), while Congress’s power to prevent her from passing her agenda is greatly enhanced now.