As has become typical of Brazilian politics in the last 6 months, the last two days have proven eventful. On Tuesday, the interim president of the Chamber of Deputies, Waldir Maranhão, attempted to annul the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, saying the Chamber of Deputies’ April 17 vote was full of irregularities. My initial reaction on Tuesday was that the move was inconceivable, and the Senate may proceed anyway. Some argued (probably correctly) that Maranhão did not have the power to annul the vote of 367 Chamber Deputies (though one could also argue that 367 Chamber Deputies shouldn’t have the power to annul the votes of 54 million Brazilians), and they may have been right, but the point was rendered moot by the fact that, by Wednesday, Maranhão annulled his annulment.
Of course, that annulment was just the sideshow yesterday, as the Senate proceeded to hold its hearings on whether or not to vote to remove Dilma from office for 180 days so that she could be tried. After being given 15 minutes each to talk, the senators would then vote. The math was already problematic – there were 76 senators present at the beginning, adding up to the possibility of 19 hours before even reaching a vote (it took a little longer than that). Each Senator could vote (including Fernando Collor, whom, it is worth remembering, was also impeached in the 1990s and forced to resign due to actual corruption, was suspended from holding public office for years, returned to politics and is again tied to corruption scandals, and yet was present to vote on Dilma’s impeachment yesterday). While the absurdity of the demonstrations did not quite reach those of the April 17 vote in the Chamber of Deputies, familiar causes for voting for removal, including “God” and “family,” were still frequent. Of course, more like the Chamber of Deputies, out of all of the 81 senators who could vote yesterday, roughly 60% of them are under investigation for their own ties to corruption, criminal activity, and fraud, even as they voted to remove a president without any substantive ties to corruption (and the pedaladas fiscais really don’t count here, for reasons elaborated upon below).
The final vote ended up being 55-22 to remove Dilma and begin the trial (as the New York Times notes, she’s only technically impeached if convicted, though no doubt that’s of small comfort). The result is that Brazil’s first woman president, democratically reelected just under 2 years ago, has been temporarily removed from office over dubious charges. Of course, the process itself isn’t technically over, as yesterday’s vote just confirms that a trial will now begin. In this circumstance, there’s still a technical possibility that Dilma could return to power, but it won’t happen. The Senate needs a 2/3 vote to permanently remove her from office; given that yesterday’s vote to suspend her for 180 days was 55-22, Dilma’s permanent removal seems highly probable. If/when that’s the case, it will mean that the only time in Brazil’s history that three democratically-elected presidents consecutively finished their terms was from 1894-1906 in Brazil’s First Republic (when elections were extremely oligarchic and weren’t exactly uncorrupt).
So what now?
Well, for starters, Vice President Michel Temer takes office for the next 180 days and, in an unusual practice, gets to form his own cabinet to govern. Representing the PMDB, which has moved right to form an alliance with the PSDB, he has already committed to neoliberalism at a much greater pace than that under Dilma. However, he also remains an acting president with little legitimacy, representing a party that was a part of Dilma’s coalition when she (and he) won, but then switched sides last year, making him a member of the opposition and implementing policies that over half of the country voted against in the previous election. Temer himself is tied to numerous corruption scandals, including signing off as a member of the cabinet on the pedaladas fiscais that have led to Dilma’s impeachment process. Additionally, Temer has actually been convicted of misappropriating campaign donations, and the courts have ruled that he cannot run for reelection for public office for the next 8 years. So now, Brazil has a president who was not elected president and who could not run for re-election for any office, even if he wanted to, due to his own conviction on corruption charges.
And if the symbolism of what this impeachment did to the vote of the marginalized and disenfranchised in Brazil wasn’t fully clear, there’s this reality: women are over half of the country’s population, and Afro-descendants are also over half of the country’s population. Temer’s cabinet, meanwhile, is 100% white men.
That cabinet makeup is indicative of the realities at play here – primarily, that this was never about corruption, but about traditional power elites whose inability across 13 years to win the presidency made impeachment the only viable alternative. Indeed, if you thought it was about the pedaladas fiscais, the Senate itself did a fine job of making clear that that was not the case – none other than PSDB Senator Antonio Anastasio, former governor of Minas Gerais, put together the case for impeachment. Of course, while he was governor, Anastasio had used pedaladas fiscais in his own budgeting.
Meanwhile, the PSDB after Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was president from 1995-2003, has been unable to win a presidential election since; meanwhile, the PMDB’s status as a “big-tent” party made it difficult to find its own serious presidential candidate, and the party settled historically for being king-maker in the 1990s and 2000s via party alliances. The inability of either party to win presidential elections in recent years (due in no small part to their inability/unwillingness to foster policies that address real inequalities in Brazil), led to them collaborating to rise to the presidency through institutional, but not democratic, means.
Is that a coup? Not as we’ve often thought of coups, but it’s time to reconsider what the word means in the 21st century, and how coups can and do operate. It’s not an old-school coup of the 20th century, with sudden, violent, physical overthrow. What it is is much what it was in Paraguay in 2012, albeit in a different national context: one branch of the government – the legislative – dominated by elites who are the traditional power-brokers, bristling at the executive branch’s ability to disrupt the elites’ traditional monopolization of power by improving the lives of the marginalized and the masses. Being unable to win the presidency themselves in this new context, they have reacted by using institutional mechanisms to remove a democratically elected president.
So what happens now?
As I commented in April, the dynamic of the power of vice presidents in future elections has fundamentally changed. I wrote after the Chamber of Deputies vote:
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). […] 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.
I think this will still hold true, and the process of selecting Vice Presidents for all future candidates will be much more fraught and have to take in new considerations that go beyond mere questions of coalition-building.
Ultimately, this may not be the death of democracy in Brazil, but it’s absolutely a massive blow against democracy. A popularly elected president in a system where people’s votes are supposed to determine the outcome has been removed before her mandate on charges that are at best selectively-applied, at worst, a naked naked power-grab. One can say that this is just the “parliamentary” side of the presidential parliamentarism in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a blow against democracy. If it were an actual parliamentary system, then the Senate could remove the prime minister, and then the people would go to the polls to determine whether to keep or remove the current government. Brazil’s electorate has no such democratic choice here. Instead, they must now sit through a government lacking any sense of legitimacy, even as it imposes neoliberal policies that Brazil’s electorate rejected in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014.
And who knows what the 2018 elections will look like? The removal of Dilma certainly won’t fix the economy immediately, nor will it end the question of corruption. After all, it’s worth remembering, the list of those tied to, or convicted of, corruption includes: the now-acting President of Brazil, Michel Temer; the PSDB’s 3 presidential candidates from the last 4 presidential elections; around 60% of current Senators; and around 60% of the current Chamber of Deputies. As the Odebrecht Papers indicate, corruption is endemic and crosses party lines.
One can hope that Brazilians keep this all in mind as they go to the polls in 2 years, opting to sweep out everybody in power and just try to wipe the slate clean. That would be nice, and its not impossible. But fatigue and inertia seem more likely, as it is clear that voting does not mean that the Brazilian people’s will will be fulfilled electorally. Certainly, the fact that all Brazilians are obligated to vote means turnout will not dip in the way that perhaps it did in the US in the 1970s, but that’s of small comfort. How the Brazilian electorate reacts – whether they use this blow to democratic processes in 2016 to fight back, or whether they take it as a harbinger of things to come – remains to be seen. What can be said is that the events of this year have been incredibly damaging to democracy in Brazil, and when we look back on this period historically, it will be a black spot with many “villains” in historical narratives and analysis.