Brazil to Muddle Through After Rousseff Suspended

Power shifts to the president’s unprincipled allies in the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil makes a statement in Brasília, April 18
President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil makes a statement in Brasília, April 18 (Blog do Planalto/Roberto Stuckert Filho)

Brazil’s Senate voted early on Thursday to continue the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, forcing the left-wing leader to step down for six months in favor of her deputy, Michel Temer.

55 to 22 senators voted to suspend Rousseff, who was elected to a second term in October 2014.

The charge against her is that she fiddled the budget figures in an election year to mask a deficit.

But those allegations are almost beside the point, especially when more than half the legislators deciding Rousseff’s fate are themselves under investigation for bribery, electoral fraud or worse. The real issue is the president’s inability to stem Brazil’s slide into its worst recession since the 1930s.

Low oil prices and a sprawling corruption scandal at the state petroleum company where she used to be a board member have also cut off a source of patronage for Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. This, more than anything, may have convinced the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the country’s largest, to withdraw its support from Rousseff.


Rousseff’s six-month suspension, pending a trial in the Senate, thrust Temer and the PMDB into a spotlight they have shunned for decades.

The party has long propped up left- and right-wing presidents without claiming the highest office for itself.

It still remains to be seen if it will break the pattern. Temer, for one, has said he will not run for president in 2018.

Political cover

His interim government is expected to be joined by the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the Workers’ Party’s rival.

It extracted some unlikely concessions, from a complete overhaul of the tax code (needed, but improbable) to political reform (impossible).

The Center on Foreign Relations’ Matthew Taylor has argued that the point of these commitments is not that they will be met. The point is that they give the PSDB cover.

“Joining the Temer Administration is now harder to paint as golpista,” he writes, or putschist, “and instead is portrayed as a high-minded commitment to the painful and necessary reforms needed to recover from the chaotic Rousseff years.”

Similarly, the support of the PSDB gives Temer a respectability he would lack if the unprincipled PMDB were the only major party in his coalition.

Muddle through

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued that structural reforms — reducing spending on pensions and raising it on infrastructure, streamlining taxes, cutting regulations and putting a lid on the pork barrel that is Brazil’s public sector — are unlikely in the short term. Especially if the left denounces every “cruel” and “neoliberal” measure a Temer Administration enacts.

For every spending project and every tax loophole that hurts growth, there is a constituency that benefits from it.

The PMDB has been a master at this type of politics. It has no ideology. It is better understood as a patronage network than a political party.

The upside is that the PMDB is so widespread and entrenched across the country that obstructionism from the bureaucracy or lower levels of government is unlikely. Temer might just manage to keep the country together and muddle through until the next election.

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