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Rousseff Leaves But Brazil’s Problems Remain

The president’s impeachment will do little to lift Brazil’s economy out of recession or clean up its politics.

Dilma Rousseff Barack Obama
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff welcomes her American counterpart, Barack Obama, and his family in Brasília, March 19, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

By the end of this month, not only will the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio have come and gone; it is also likely that the left-wing Dilma Rousseff will have finally been removed from the presidency.

Neither will occur without incident. Nor will they solve Brazil’s increasingly confused, complex and confrontational state of affairs, from a messy entanglement of impeachment proceedings to the possibility of fresh elections to the worst economic recession in Brazilian history.


Rousseff is alleged to have violated budget laws by manipulating government accounts for electoral gain in the run-up to her 2014 reelection. On Tuesday, the Senate voted to put the suspended Rousseff on trial and thus enable her permanent removal from office by the end of August.

The Senate previously voted by two-thirds to suspend Rousseff’s presidency. A repeat vote would be enough to secure her departure.

But Brazil’s Court of Accounts has found no evidence that Rousseff cooked the books and she would need just six more votes to overturn the impeachment proceedings. The margins are fine.


Should Rousseff survive, a lengthy malaise would be prolonged further and tensions in Congress and on the street could well reach the fever pitch of a few months ago.

If she goes, her one-time vice president, Michel Temer, will remain in situ and attempt, not without dissent, to muddle through until the 2019 election.

The impeachment, or coup, as viewed by a third of the population, has polarized Brazil. The masses are mobilized not by hope but by despair. An ailing economy, which has shrunk in the last five quarters and drained cities and states of funds, has exacerbated preexisting class fault lines and resulted in huge protests across the country.


It has fallen to Temer to right the ship. A good negotiator and networker, the acting president typifies his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) approach: lacking an overarching ideology, it has molded itself to fit into any number of governments. Its pragmatism is evidenced by its ability to continue to work alongside Rousseff’s Workers’ Party for the October municipal elections even as it has used the state apparatus to push the president to the brink of impeachment.

Temer’s support for the ouster of his erstwhile coalition partner was an act of political opportunism. A combination of economic mismanagement and sprawling graft investigations left the country in an ungovernable state: Rousseff’s public approval ratings dropped from a 79-percent high in 2013 to just 10 percent in May.

On the face of things — in stark contrast to the previous thirteen years of Workers’ Party rule — Temer has assembled a technocratic and orthodox cabinet, full of economic zeal and expertise which is well-placed to obtain the support of a majority in Congress. Expectations in the country are low, however, and Temer’s own approval rating is a dismal 11 percent.

The new government is tasked with implementing an unpalatable austerity agenda. The PMDB-led team is more market-friendly and wants to use this opportunity to increase private-sector involvement and make public-sector reforms — policies which, due to popular resistance, would normally be tantamount to electoral suicide.

However, Temer, ever the pragmatist, has already backtracked when meeting with congressional resistance and demonstrated his reluctance to make the constitutional amendments required to enact deep spending cuts.

No end to the corruption

To the outside world, Temer’s stewardship may appear to offer at the very least a degree of stability. But this could prove elusive. Corruption investigations are ongoing, despite having already uncovered an estimated $2 billion of funds diverted to Brazilian politicians and their allies from contractors bidding for work with the country’s state-owned oil and gas giant Petrobras.

Even before the PMDB formed an interim government, the speakers of both the upper and lower houses of Congress, Renan Calheiros and Eduardo Cunha — both of the PMDB — were facing serious allegations.

Within a month of Temer’s installation of of an all-male, all-white cabinet, three ministers have already had to resign for their involvement in the corruption scandal.

Separately, 30 to 60 percent of the members of Congress are under investigation for electoral fraud, money laundering, murder and slave labor. The potential to cause significant harm to an already discredited elite has yet to be fully realized.

Fresh elections

What if Temer fails to manage the transition? He and numerous members of his party have, after all, also been implicated in the scandal. Does he curtail the investigation for the sake of stability? Or does the country undergo fresh elections to regain a government with legitimacy, the popular option on the streets now supported by Rousseff?

Another constitutional amendment would be required to initiate the election process from which all the governing parties stand to lose. The PMDB helped draft the current 1988 constitution and is not inclined to forego a rare opportunity to lead the government.

The Workers’ Party, still by far Brazil’s largest, has been badly damaged and demoralized by the events that unfolded during Rousseff’s second term. Even the people’s hero, former president Lula de Silva, appears to have had his hope for reelection in 2018 dashed and will now stand trial for intervening in the corruption proceedings.

It would seem that political self-preservation will trump any need to reengage the electorate in the short term. Some candidates still have support but few can distance themselves from the whiff of corruption. Given the shortage of credible political alternatives, an unhealthy nostalgia for military dictatorship will be entertained in some parts and stoked by the extreme right-wing presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro.

Endless prosecutions

Such are the levels of polarization and thirst for justice for the ills committed by those governing the country that it is not a group of individuals but the political system itself that is on trial.

While prosecution fatigue will inevitably take hold, the question in 2019 may well be who is the last one standing to take over as leader.

If there is one crumb of comfort to be taken from this unedifying period in Brazilian history, it is the transparency and effectiveness of an independent judiciary as a counterweight to the excesses of the executive and the legislature. The public prosecutors of the Supreme Court are the new champions of justice. But there is no guarantee that when this judicialization of politics has cast out the last venal politician what follows will be any cleaner and clearer.

Lessons learned

Brazilian voters are used to presidential politics, where charismatic individuals matter and party structures do not. But if Brazilian politics are to move forward, they must change: not just with continual prosecutions but through a comprehensive review of the nature of the political system.

70 percent of Congress received campaign finance from just ten companies in the last election. Such a disproportionate influence on national affairs must be tackled and political donations must be made more transparent.

At the same time, the number of parties and size of districts must be reduced in the interest of more effective governance. When the economic crisis begins to abate, this is where the focus must be.

If Brazil is to avoid a repetition of its current ills, the underlying causes cannot be ignored for the sake of short-term stability.