Thoughts on Brazil’s Impeachment Vote Yesterday

As mentioned last night, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (Brazil’s lower house in the bicameral Congress) voted to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff. The final tally was 367 in favor of impeachment and 137 against impeachment, with 7 abstentions and two absences. All that was needed to move forward was a 2/3 vote – in this case, 342 votes in favor – so the vote was not close. Perhaps fittingly, a representative from the center-right PSDB (Brazilian Social Democrat Party), historically the PT’s (Workers Party) main opponent, cast the deciding vote.

The voting took nearly six hours, and was quite the spectacle. Each deputy was given the chance to briefly state why they were voting, and the responses were….various. The causes cited for voting to impeach Dilma included, but were not limited to: for their wives; for their mothers; for other family members (including grandchildren whose birthday it was yesterday); God; because they didn’t want (and I’m quoting here) his “kids to learn about sex in school;” for “peace in Jerusalem” (no, really); and against “children changing their sexes in school” (no – really). The racist, misogynistic, and homophobic dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro went so far as to dedicate his vote in favor of impeachment to the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the military regime’s worst torturers who from late 1970 to 1974 oversaw the very center where Dilma, and hundreds of other Brazilians, were tortured.

Suffice to say, none of these issues actually addressed the actual issue at hand in impeachment – the pedaladas fiscais, or “fiscal maneuvers” in describing the federal government’s financial situation in 2014. Of course, as I discussed here, this was not an impeachable offense – it was not made illegal until last year, and both the center-right PSDB’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and PT’s Luis Inácio Lula da Silva had used the practice, as had well over a dozen sitting governors in 2014.  Some deputies voted in favor of impeachment “against corruption,” but even that was not the issue at play here. Yes, there are numerous corruption scandals involving Petrobras, the Lava Jato investigation, and kickbacks, but the pedaladas fiscais are not a part of the actual corruption scandals. Dilma herself has not been tied to any of the corruption scandals; indeed while her name is absent from both the Lava Jato investigation and, more recently, the Panama Papers, the opposition is rife with politicians directly tied to both, including Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies who led the impeachment campaign. That’s not to say there may not be something uncovered later, but impeachment is a reactive, not proactive, political action. Ultimately, fewer than 10 deputies actually addressed the issue at hand – the pedaladas fiscais. Perhaps Dilma’s use of them was unconstitutional (though given the historical precedent, that seems unlikely), but nobody bothered to really make that case.

It was a difficult six hours to sit through for a number of reasons. One reason was because of the sheer demagoguery on display. Many of those voting for impeachment took time to sign each other’s flags, which they (literally) draped themselves in, wearing the flag as a cape, as if they were superheroes saving the nation. There was also a hint of sexism on display, as some were carrying signs that said “Tchau, querida” (roughly: “Bye, sweetheart”) in a move that was patronizing to Dilma. As one person sardonically commented on Twitter, the sign could refer to Dilma or to democracy in Brazil.

In addition to demagoguery, hypocrisy was on full display as well. Numerous men voted for impeachment in the name of their “family”; when it was announced that one Congresswoman was absent (and thus her vote would count as “no”) because she was pregnant, the opposition roundly booed her, effectively because she was not present due to having a family.

More systematically, the hypocrisy was on display over the issue of corruption itself. Corruption is a real issue in Brazil, as evident yesterday – not in the actual impeachment vote of Dilma itself, but in the fact that around 300 of the people voting yesterday are directly tied to corruption, criminal activity, fraud, money laundering, etc., but remain in office either due to parliamentary immunity or to a more general climate of impunity in which investigations into and punishment of very serious cases of electoral fraud and corruption move at a snail’s pace and rarely lead to any real punishment. The fact that the sitting president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros (also of the PMDB) has been tied to multiple corruption scandals and even briefly resigned (only to be re-elected), and that Cunha was discovered to have millions of dollars in a secret Swiss bank account (something he vehemently denied until the evidence was incontrovertible) is evidence of that fact. As for the unequal move toward justice, Cunha oversaw yesterday’s impeachment of Dilma while he himself is a defendant in the Supreme Court over that very corruption scandal and his ties to Lava Jato. As one deputy put it, “I have never seen so much hypocrisy per square meter,” and she wasn’t really being unfair.

In all of this, it’s worth recalling that 137 did vote “no” (with 9 more abstentions/absences counting toward “no”). Many voting “no” against impeachment pointed out Cunha is directly tied to/named in Lava Jato. Indeed, there is fear among some sectors that Congress will impeach Dilma and pretend it has “solved” corruption without actually dealing with the branch of government where corruption is most endemic – namely, Congress itself. Indeed, many in the opposition celebrated Cunha yesterday, and it’s increasingly looking like his move to break with the PT government and impeach Dilma was intended to redirect attention and anger away from his own corruption scandals. While he’s not out of the woods himself, he’s definitely managed to take a major step toward taking Dilma, who’s not connected to any of those scandals, with him.

Of course, now the question is – what happens next? The immediate political process I described yesterday, but the effects on Brazilian politics will likely last long beyond the impeachment of Dilma. One thing that seems quite probable is that the very nature of executive politics has transformed. Since 1988, presidents had selected vice presidents in the hope of coalition-building in Congress (due to the parliamentary system of the legislature, where the numerous parties mean presidents rely on coalitions to get their programs approved). If the Senate decides (by a simple majority) to proceed with impeachment, Dilma must step down during the proceedings, and Vice President Michel Temer will become president. Temer, of course, is from the PMDB – the biggest party in Brazil, and the party of none other than Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha, who has led the charge for impeachment. Some allege that Temer has directly undermined and worked against Dilma (technically, his boss/supervisor) in the hopes of becoming president (the PMDB has never had a directly-elected president). Whether or not those allegations are true is in a way immaterial; from this point forward, presidential candidates are going to have to keep in the back of their mind the possibility that their vice president may ultimately work against them to become president, with the aid of Congress. This could dramatically transform the role of the Vice President in Brazil and alter the balance of power not just between President and Vice President, but between political parties and alliances themselves, as coalitions may have to rethink whom they select for presidential/vice-presidential candidates. And the public may consider whom the Vice President is more strongly going forward, given the potential that yesterday’s vote seems to open the door for Congress helping the Vice President become President more easily.

Meanwhile – was it a coup? I’m still not inclined to use that term, and not just because Dilma still is in office, but because of what past coups have looked like, and how different this situation is. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the nuanced idea that this might be a “legal coup” in the sense of removing a president out of partisanship but doing so through institutional mechanisms, a la what happened in Paraguay in 2012, but I think it is important to understand how 2016 differs from 1964 (or 1889, or 1930, or 1937), when the removal of a president (or empire, in the case of 1889) led to a very real transformation in the very state itself. That said, I understand some of the arguments for the term as well.

Either way, whether or not it is a coup, it is certainly a major step back for Brazilian democracy. It’s not just because the President has been impeached without doing anything evidently impeachable (and again, if the use of pedaladas fiscais was impeachable, nobody bothered to seriously make that case yesterday). It’s because yesterday’s impeachment vote is effectively a vote of no confidence in a system that relies on four-year terms. As I’ve mentioned several times, there is much debate over whether a presidential parliamentary system like Brazil’s could even work in theory, much less in practice. Yesterday’s vote reveals another crack in the system, as a majority of people can effectively vote in a president, only to have Congress attempt to remove that president. Some may counter, “well, Dilma is unpopular!,” which yes, currently she is (though let’s not pretend media narratives that shape public attitudes are somehow impartial). However, it’s still a system in which the public elects the president, and barring any evidence of overt corruption, treason, or abuse of power (which, at the risk of redundance, is not immediately evident in the actual impeachment charges), elected leaders should serve out their terms, because that strengthens the legitimacy of the democratic instituions themselves and illustrates the importance of participating in electoral processes. Put another way: if Brazil wants to remove a leader due to unpopularity, it should just become a parliamentary system; unfortunately, that’s not what it is, and it can’t be transformed quickly, primarily because presidential parliamentarism is the reality of the 1988 Constitution’s establishment of governance. Any transformations would require a fundamental rewriting of the Constitution, and that seems unlikely at best (and, given the current crop of Congressional representatives, it’s not clear it’s even desirable).

All of this is a very long way of saying that there are real systemic and structural issues remaining in Brazilian politics and democracy, and yesterday’s vote has greatly complicated the scenario in Brazil not just in the coming months, but for the coming years. Yesterday perhaps was not the first step in the end of Brazilian democratic institutions and democracy, but it was definitely a step in the wrong direction.

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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, Coups in Latin America, Impeachment, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America. Bookmark the permalink.

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