Post-Impeachment Brazil: What happens now?

The events leading up to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff have been simultaneously traumatic and cathartic for Brazil. As this chapter of Brazilian history draws to a close, many unanswered questions remain. Will the new government have the clout to push through the hard reforms needed to pull Brazil out of its worst ever economic crisis? Will the Lava Jato corruption investigation be allowed to continue, or will politicians get in the way, risking the country’s future to save themselves?

It is done. After a drawn-out political drama, Dilma Rousseff has been impeached. Michel Temer will now serve out the remainder of her presidential term, until the next election in 2018.

It felt like a kind of anti-climax. After months of shameful squabbling and farcical performances by politicians, activists and members of Congress on both sides of the issue, a kind of political fatigue set in. Brazilians are exhausted from the ongoing political infighting, and the difficult realities of the continuing economic crisis are diverting their attention.

Apathy set in after Rousseff was suspended a few months ago and her impeachment began to feel inevitable. It became clear that there was no saving her: The rhetoric of her supporters notwithstanding, no one wanted her back, not even her own party. To the opposition, she was impossible to work with. To her allies, she was a liability. To an overwhelming majority of Brazilians, she was an incompetent administrator, with approval ratings that reached into the single digits by the end of her presidency. Everyone agreed that she had to go.

Good Riddance

Any attempts to brand the impeachment as illegitimate were more about saving face than about actually saving Dilma. There was nothing illegitimate about the process, which was supervised by the Supreme Court and only diverted from the constitution at the very last second. However, it is certainly true that the crimes for which she was impeached are only the beginning of the grievances against her. Still, they are very serious offenses, with broad consequences and repercussions, and not merely “technicalities,” as many have claimed.

The official reasons for Dilma’s removal are that she broke budgetary laws, spending money recklessly and without congressional approval, while at the same time covering this up to misrepresent the true state of the country’s finances in the run-up to her reelection (for an in-depth explanation of the technical merits of the impeachment proceedings, click here). All in all, her actions not only broke Brazil’s fiscal responsibility law, which is an impeachable offense, but also led to a record deficit and the loss of Brazil’s investment grade, with devastating consequences for the Brazilian economy.

Fiscal fraud and creative accounting notwithstanding, there are indeed many other reasons why Dilma needed to go. She was incompetent and negligent in general, especially with regard to her mismanagement of the economy. But her greatest problem had to do with corruption. It happened to an unprecedented extent on her watch, both while she was president and in her previous role, as energy minister and chair of the Petrobras board. Furthermore, her divisive populist rhetoric created a toxic atmosphere in Brasilia, which made compromise and accord, i.e. the basic tools of governance, all but impossible.

All of this brought the government to a grinding halt, and during a crisis, when action was most seriously needed. This government paralysis was prolonged unnecessarily due to Dilma’s stubborn refusal to simply resign in light of so many controversies and scandals. Instead, she held on until the bitter end, subjecting Brazil to a traumatic political process for months, preventing the government from taking action on the economy. Still, it was not enough to save her. She is gone, finally, and good riddance. Hopefully now the government can get back to actually doing its job.

Out with the old, in with the older

Although Dilma has been soundly rejected by Brazilians, her vice president Michel Temer has not exactly been embraced by the people. After a few months in office as interim president, his approval ratings are not that much better than Dilma’s. The reasons are clear: He is an old-school establishment politician, with all the associated baggage.

So far, Temer’s track record as interim president indicates that he is more concerned about doing favors for and protecting his shady friends than setting about implementing any serious reforms. He seems determined to do the bare minimum to not be run out of office himself. His solutions so far have been to put in place some serious technocrats to manage the economy while he himself takes over the political backroom dealing.

Still, it had been hoped that, despite his shortcomings, his long experience in government and background as a constitutional scholar would make him a competent administrator. The greater hope was that he would rise to the occasion, for once in his life putting aside his own selfish interests and working toward the greater good.

Up until the culmination of the impeachment proceedings this Wednesday, this seemed possible, even likely. After all, Temer’s main concern during his time as interim president was to restore order to the frazzled and terrified political classes and to get them to agree to impeach Dilma. Now that she is gone, and his position is secure, he could start being a more engaged leader. Unfortunately, Brazilian politics are consistently disappointing, and the way in which the impeachment proceedings unfolded indicates that Temer will remain exactly as he has always been.

Brazilian politics: Like a box of chocolates

The final vote definitively removing Dilma should have been but a formality. However, in the midst of all the discord and hostility in Brasilia, after the scandals of the “petrolão” tore the political class apart, there was a sudden revival of the oldest and most reviled Brazilian tradition: the “acordão”.

“Acordão” means “big agreement” – it alludes to deal-making among political rivals such that those caught engaging in corruption can walk away with merely symbolic punishments. Basically, the “acordão” is the epitome of the institutionalized impunity that has been so characteristic throughout Brazilian history. In the age of Lava Jato, Brazilians had taken to hoping that this practice was a thing of the past. Sadly, the patently unconstitutional way in which the impeachment unfolded indicates otherwise. 

What went wrong? To understand, one must first consider the Brazilian constitution’s treatment of impeachment. It says that a presidential impeachment must be accompanied by an eight-year ban from politics. It is not an “either, or” situation. The senate, which casts the deciding votes on impeachments, does not have the authority to split this punishment, instituting one part of it but not the other. And yet, that is exactly what happened.

It came as a surprise. Right before the final impeachment vote, Senator Katia Abreu, a fierce Dilma defender and her former minister, asked the Supreme Court justice overseeing the proceedings, Ricardo Lewandowski, if the senate could hold two separate votes, one regarding the impeachment itself and another regarding the political rights. Astonishingly, despite the unambiguousness of the constitution on this matter, he agreed.

The first vote, on impeachment itself, proceeded as expected, with 60 senators voting for it, and 21 against, far exceeding the 54-vote supermajority needed for the decision to stand. Then, before the second vote, the senate president, Renan Calheiros, who is from the same party as Temer and is therefore nominally Rousseff’s enemy (and has long been among the most corrupt in Brazilian politics), pleaded for mercy, saying both impeaching her and removing her political rights would be “disproportional” and that the senators should not “kick her while she is down.” This was all it took for enough senators to either reverse themselves or abstain from voting entirely, thereby ensuring that the supermajority would not be reached and allowing Rousseff to maintain her political rights.

At this point it is important to remember how much the Senate hated Dilma the whole time she was president. She was bad at management, but also bad at politics, refusing to build bridges and reach compromises with friends and rivals alike. Her stubborn and insular approach strengthened the opposition’s motivation to get rid of her and also turned her own allies against her. After sowing so much discord with these people, it is hard to understand why they would now publicly go against the constitution for her benefit. Where did all this magnanimity come from? Why would Dilma’s enemies, who should have been reveling in her downfall, suddenly swoop in to save her?

One thing is for sure: None of it arose spontaneously. Although it looked that way, reports soon emerged that this outcome had been in the works for some time. Abreu asked Lewandowski to ponder whether he could find a way to justify splitting the vote two weeks in advance. She and other Dilma advocates also lobbied behind the scenes during these two weeks, making sure that once the vote was split, enough Senators would change sides to allow Dilma to maintain her privileges. As a result, she can now run for office or be appointed to a government job at any time.

This is a big deal because in Brazil, having a high-level political position is, in essence, a get-out-of-jail-free card, literally. Holders of such positions are guaranteed the so-called “privileged forum,” which means that they can only be tried by the Supreme Court. This usually means they are never tried at all, since the Brazilian Supreme Court is a body of just 11 people that faces some 100,000 new cases each year. Needless to say, there is a really long line of people awaiting trial at the Supreme Court. Often, nothing happens at all for years, allowing statutes of limitations to expire.

One interpretation of the situation is therefore that the impeachment vote-split maneuver was designed to give Dilma the opportunity to regain her privileged forum after losing her presidency. This is indeed what Dilma herself tried to do to save her mentor, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, when she appointed him to a ministry position right before it looked like he might be facing arrest for his own corruption problems, arguably abusing her power in the process (the Supreme Court blocked this appointment and Lula remains in peril, although nothing has happened to him yet). It is likely, in fact, that she already has some new job lined up.

This raises several other questions. Why does she need the privileged forum in the first place? She has long claimed to be one of the few Brazilian politicians that is totally clean. Is she worried something will come out about her now that she is no longer the president?

Another interpretation, which is in alignment with Dilma’s combative personality, is that she threatened to take her political rivals down with her. This half-measure perhaps was enough to buy her silence regarding their offenses. However, this again raises questions. What did she know about the corruption of other politicians, and why didn’t she say anything before?

Another explanation is that the senators only acted in this way because it helps them too, not just because of Dilma’s potential silence but also because of the precedent. If she gets to keep her political rights after losing her mandate, maybe others will too. Hundreds of politicians are facing criminal charges and the prospect of losing their positions and their immunity. They can now try to use this precedent to retain their political rights even if they are kicked out of office, making them eligible for their own protected political appointments. Indeed, this has already started. One senator who has already been stripped of his mandate for trying to interfere with the Lava Jato investigations, Delcidio do Amaral, has already requested reinstatement of his political rights. Will it work? Who else will attempt this maneuver?

Old-school Politics and the future of Lava Jato

Months ago, leaked wire-tap audio of recently appointed ministers in the Temer interim government  painted a picture of a desperate political class conspiring to “stop the bleeding” of the corruption investigations that have tarnished so many careers and landed so many people in jail (the minister in question, Romero Jucá, has since stepped down but continues to be a powerful political figure). At the time, this looked like a bunch of out-of-touch individuals in denial about a fight they could not win. The surprising turn of events around the impeachment and the negotiations that led to Dilma Rousseff maintaining her political rights indicates that they may at last be succeeding in their quest to make deals that could end up limiting the investigations.

Dilma’s salvation required collusion not only among rival senators, but also with a Supreme Court justice. If these parties continue to work together so smoothly, they will very likely be able to undermine Lava Jato.

The impeachment accord also indicates a rift in Temer’s alliance. The President of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, sided with Dilma’s party (the PT) rather than his and Temer’s (the PMDB) to allow Dilma’s punishment to be decreased. This was a betrayal of someone, but of whom remains unclear. Although rumors first reported that Temer did not know about it, and was furious, other rumors later emerged that he did know about it the whole time, and that his “anger” was just a show for the other alliance members who were not in on it (and the Brazilian people). In any case, it is clear that a wing of the PMDB has reconciled with the PT. How this will affect the other allied parties and the remainder of the Temer presidency going forward remains to be seen.

In order to address the economic crisis, Temer will need to pass some difficult reforms and needs all the support he can get. This maneuver to save Dilma could cost him some support. Even worse, the imperiled members of congress could take advantage of the situation, holding the needs of the country hostage and refraining from providing their support until their impunity is guaranteed. This could potentially create a situation in which the government will have to choose between allowing Lava Jato to continue and addressing the reforms needed to end the crisis, without the possibility of doing both. If it comes to this, the corrupt forces will once again have won and all will go back to business as usual in Brazil. If corruption remains unaddressed, another crisis in the future is inevitable.

Hope is the last to die

For a while there, it seemed like the tides were turning against corruption in Brazil. Sadly, they seem to be turning back. It is now up to the institutions fighting against corruption to outmaneuver the politicians. And the people, who are exhausted by political upheaval and suffering from the economic collapse, must fight their apathy to continue exerting pressure and taking to the streets, if necessary. Going forward, they must also be more careful about who they vote for. Brazilians have historically been way too forgiving, allowing formerly disgraced politicians to return to public life. This must change. For Brazil to improve, the old political class needs to be replaced by serious people.

The best thing that can happen, then, in the time between now and the end of Temer’s term, is for some new faces to emerge on the political scene. People willing to be actual public servants. People who understand the realities of governing a vast and diverse developing country. People who are willing to do hard, unglamorous work, and who are interested in making incremental improvements over a long period of time rather than dealing in band-aid solutions. Only then can Brazil start living up to the words emblazoned on its flag (and on this blog): Order and Progress.

So far, no such figures have emerged. They have another two years to get themselves into play. Otherwise, Brazil will go back to being the same as it ever was: Bursting with potential but held back by the shortcomings of its leaders. A good crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Let’s hope all the upheaval of the past few years has not been in vain.