Catching Up on Impeachment, Corruption, and Brazilian Politics

Across this past semester, I got away from blogging less by choice than by circumstance, due to the vagaries of course preps, writing, researching, etc. My timing was not good, as political life in Brazil got….interesting. Even while corruption scandals continued to unfold implicating numerous members of Congress, bankers, and past politicians unfolded, in the last couple of weeks, Congress has decided to move to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. It seems like a good time to catch up on what’s going on in Brazil with some preliminary thoughts on what’s admittedly a complicated and constantly-shifting political situation.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the man leading the charge – leader of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), who broke with Dilma’s government this past summer. Cunha is a highly divisive figure, in no small part because he is facing his own corruption scandal. While there has been nothing concrete to suggest Dilma has committed any impeachable acts, Cunha himself was discovered to have secret Swiss bank accounts, with millions included in them from unverified sources. Given the massive corruption scandal revolving around Petrobras, construction companies, and politicians, Cunha’s name has been closely tied to what may end up being the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. And this is not just allegations – even as Cunha’s push for impeachment reached the Supreme Court last week (more on that in a minute), police searched his and his allies’ homes as part of the ongoing corruption scandal around Cunha (including the home of the President of the Senate, Renan Calheiros – also of the PMDB), even as the Chamber’s Ethics Committee finally voted to proceed with investigations into Cunha that could lead to his own ouster. In short, the man leading the charge to impeach the president over vague allegations of corruption could be forced out of his office over more immediately-substantive allegations of corruption himself.

To be clear, this is not just a case of Cunha-vs.-Rousseff, mano a mano. There are plenty in the opposition parties to the government supporting the impeachment of Dilma. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, ex-president and leader of the PSDB, defended impeachment as opening a “new path” for Brazil. [This even as an investigation into the massive Petrobras scandal is increasingly suggesting that the roots of the corruption practices date back to his own presidency in the late 1990s.] But such an endorsement from a man who’s long positioned himself as an (often borderline irrational) opponent of the governing PT (to which his party has lost the last 4 presidential elections) does not necessarily lend a strong juridical/legal legitimacy to calls for impeachment. And a number of men (and it’s all men) in Congress are important allies with Cunha, and they could play a key role in pushing through the impeachment of Brazil’s first woman president.

Despite the efforts of Dilma’s opponents, however, the path to impeachment remains uncertain, in no small part because of the nakedly partisan efforts to remove a president who seems to be lacking in impeachable offenses. Indeed, members of the Chamber of Deputies themselves seem confused over what impeachable actions they are charging Dilma with. After the Chamber of Deputies created an impeachment committee that was stacked with her critics (after a secret vote, seen as a violation of democratic practices – a vote that led to a fight on the floor of the Chamber), the Supreme Court annulled the commission’s existence, forcing the Chamber to restart the process even as Brazil is about to enter its extended holiday period, even while it also acknowledged that the Senate can refuse to continue the hearings even if the Chamber moves to impeach (based, ironically, on the 1992 corruption scandal hearings that brought down President Fernando Collor – who is currently in the Senate, even while facing his own corruption scandal [again]). Although Congress can meet in January, culturally, from Christmas through Carnival is often treated as a long summer holiday, much in the way it June-August are in the United States, and so it’s not clear that even the Chamber will move on impeachment before March; nor is it clear Cunha will be able to last that long – it’s possible, but not obvious.

The move towards impeachment has also led to criticisms from within and outside of Brazil. No less an authority on impeachment than Sydney Sanches, who was the chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court during the Fernando Collor impeachment hearings in 1990-1992, said that the current impeachment push risks “vulgarizing impeachment” and throwing the country into turmoil. Scholars outside of Brazil see the current events as less about political crimes and more about Dilma’s opposition exacting “revenge” even while undermining Brazil’s strength in the world.

Meanwhile, the public has taken to the streets to voice diverse opinions. Last Sunday, around 5000-6000 pro-impeachment demonstrators took to the streets in Brasília in an anti-corruption rally that, not coincidentally, focused primarily on Dilma, with similar rallies in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In response, on Wednesday, anti-impeachment and/or pro-Dilma forces took to the streets, with over 55,000 gathering in São Paulo, 15,000 more than had gathered Sunday, despite the anti-impeachment rally falling on a  workday.

The protest against impeachment (which, it should be stressed, is not necessarily or uniformly a pro-Dilma demonstration) taps into the broader contestation going on here. Along with public demonstrations in favor of constitutionalism, the hashtag #NaoVaiTerGolpe (“There Will Not Be a Coup”) has become an important measure for people to speak out against impeachment/for Dilma.

This latter phrase raises another question – is this a coup attempt? For a country where a military coup happened just 51 years ago, and the transition to democracy is just over 30 years old, it’s understandable why this is a sensitive subject. That the current president also suffered torture at the hands of that military regime also adds to the poignancy of the narrative of democracy/coups in Brazil. Certainly, there is precedent in living memory of a coup overthrowing a constitutional president in Brazil.

However, the best analogue as to why many fear a coup in 2015 may not be Brazil in 1964, but rather a neighbor’s more recent experience: Paraguay in 2012. In that year, a Congress ideologically opposed to president Fernando Lugo’s program turned to partisan, vague/trumped-up charges to impeach Lugo, leaving him with virtually no time to mount a defense before removing him from office. At the time, I suggested that, while constitutional, Paraguay’s Congress had effectively launched an institutional coup that disrupted the constitutional balance of power between the legislative and executive. By impeaching a president who had won a popular, democratic election for what ultimately was simply a distaste for how democracy had actually worked out in practice, Paraguay’s Congress effectively removed Lugo via an institutional coup, dealing a not-inconsiderable blow to democracy in Paraguay (which itself only emerged from the thirty-five year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner in 1989, with democratic elections only finally occurring in 1992).

What happened in Paraguay is reminiscent of what has happened in Brazil up to this point: a president wins an election, and the opposition (in this case mired in layers upon layers of corruption itself) seeks to remove her from office, using the mask of vague charges and allegations to (poorly) conceal the open partisan removal of somebody who won a popular, democratic election. Whether or not Dilma’s popularity has slipped has no bearing on the constitutional reality that, without committing some open crime, she is to serve her full presidential term. Important leaders in Congress, based on nakedly partisan rivalries and ideology, is seeking to undo that constitutional obligation. While many in public, both against and for impeachment, speak out against corruption across party lines, the fact that Cunha is leading the charge for impeachment with the support of PSDB and PMDB politicians also more directly tied to corruption make clear that, institutionally, this is not about corruption and governance, but about partisanship, regardless of the electorate’s desires.

And as if this weren’t complicated enough, what would happen in the eventuality of Dilma’s impeachment is also dependent on internal party dynamics, for while the PMDB’s Cunha is leading the impeachment charge, Vice-President Michel Temer, who would become temporary president, is also from the PMDB. Some say this makes him likely to work behind the scenes for her impeachment, doing so could leave him marginalized in the event she is not convicted. While Temer has publicly denied working toward impeachment, the denial came after a private letter he wrote critiquing Dilma became public. Some suggest that Temer has strengthened his ties to Cunha, but even if this is the case, given how perilous and unclear Cunha’s own future is, Temer may be stepping away quickly. And many in the PMDB are also opposed to impeachment, meaning that the impeachment hearings themselves are inextricably entwined with an internal struggle over the path of the PMDB, Brazil’s largest and least ideologically-defined political party.

Where things go remain unclear.  Dilma’s disapproval ratings fell slightly this week, as the public perhaps is growing tired of talks of impeachment where there is no obvious impeachable crime. The fact remains that Cunha is playing a dangerous game of chicken, and he may not be able to get impeachment hearings brought forth before he’s perhaps forced to step down amidst his own corruption (again, for which there is much more evidence). Even if the Chamber of Deputies moves to impeach, currently, the numbers in the Senate do not favor a conviction, though impeachment would mean Dilma would have to step down from office while on trial, which would certainly disrupt Brazilian politics, economics, and society at a time where the country is already struggling.

And of course, while it has been months and still there has been no evidence of any crime or wrongdoing on Dilma’s part, that does not mean there may not be something in the future. Two things in this instant are certain: corruption is a massive problem facing Brazilian politics, and one that is not limited to a particular political party; and, with impeachment increasingly appearing like a partisan tool rather than a legal protection, Brazil’s democracy is perhaps at its most uncertain moment since the early 1990s. And those leading to undermine that democracy are Cunha, leaders in the PSDB, and other members of the opposition party who lost a fair and open election. It speaks poorly of those theoretically leading a democratic nation when their faith in democracy is so easily shaken and selective.

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.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Corruption, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Catching Up on Impeachment, Corruption, and Brazilian Politics

  1. randinho2014 says:

    So many here mistake democracy for getting what you want. When people say that they don’t understand how Dilma ws reelected – and it was close – I tell them absent any actual proof, they have to accept the result. When they start to praise democracy in the US, I then explain Citizens United and the 2000 election to them.

    I also tell them that democracy sometimes results in your side not winning, but you are still obliged to accept the results.

  2. Pingback: Catching Up on Impeachment, Corruption, and Brazilian Politics | BLOG DO MARCVIN

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