Why Moving Up Brazil’s Elections is a Terrible Idea

As Brazil’s president is looking more and more unlikely to complete his term in office, the country is divided as to how he should be replaced. Some are arguing to move up direct elections – a process that would require amending Brazil’s constitution. This would be a long, contentious and most likely pointless, if not potentially dangerous, exercise. Better to just follow the currently outlined constitutional procedure and wait for the next scheduled elections, which are only a little more than a year away. Instead of “Diretas Já” (direct elections now), how about “Diretas Já Já”(direct elections soon)?

Chaos continues to dominate the political scene in Brazil. The present situation, in which President Michel Temer has been recorded condoning corruption and accused of accepting millions in bribes, is obviously untenable. Although he has remained defiant and is scrambling to keep his governing coalition together, he will soon be questioned formally by the Federal Police. Defections from his administration and open campaigning by his would-be successor indicate that he could be forced out. Of course, he could save Brazil from the trauma of another impeachment in two years by simply resigning.

But if his remaining in office represents an affront to the rule of law, his departure threatens to induce a constitutional crisis. This is because no one can figure out who should replace him.

He has no vice president (he was the vice president of Dilma Rousseff, who was herself impeached last year). Next in the presidential line of succession is the President of the House, Rodrigo Maia (followed by Senate President Eunicio de Oliveira and Supreme Court Chief Justice Carmem Lucia Rocha). However, Maia would only be in charge temporarily – the constitution states that the interim president must preside over indirect elections for a new president, to be chosen by Congress, within 90 days of taking office. Therein lies the problem: the constitution does not clarify who could or should run in this indirect election. Who Congress votes for is up to them, apparently. It is worth remembering at this point that about 60% of the members of Brazil’s scandal-plagued congress are currently under investigation for corruption and other crimes.

In response to this grim situation, some activists have proposed amending the constitution so that direct elections can be held immediately, thereby getting around the indirect election and allowing the Brazilian people, who have for so many years been ruled by corrupt politicians, to choose a new leader for themselves.

Although this may seem like an appealing idea on the surface, in reality, it is likely to cause more problems than it would solve.

First of all, it will probably be pointless. The process of amending the constitution is long and complex, requiring two sets of votes in both houses of Congress. Even when the majority of legislators agree that a change is necessary, it is a drawn-out process that can take several months. The next elections are scheduled for October 2018, just over a year away. It would therefore be likely that the new elections would be held just a few months ahead of when they were supposed to happen anyway. In the meanwhile, the government would remain paralyzed, much as it was during last year’s impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Brazil is in a dire economic situation, barely starting to emerge from the worst economic downturn in its history. 14 million people remain unemployed. A paralyzed government (again) is the last thing the country needs.

Given its controversial nature and the procedural complexity involved in getting it passed, the constitutional amendment has a low chance of succeeding, and the process of attempting it will only sow more ugliness, conflict and collective trauma for a country that has had enough of that in the past few years.

But let’s say that, by some miracle, the constitutional amendment does manage to pass quickly and new elections are held soon, perhaps a year in advance. Therein lies the next problem: who would even run? Pretty much all of the well-known establishment political figures are caught up one corruption scandal or another. At this point, credible alternatives have yet to emerge, creating a singular opening for some untested demagogue or opportunist.

Case in point, some of the leaders of current polls are former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is currently facing 5 separate corruption charges, and the far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who is often referred to as Brazil’s Donald Trump.  

Why should Brazilians rip up their constitution and paralyze their country to elect a scandal-tainted politician or an unknown variable just a few months before an election is supposed to be held anyway?

All in all, it seems like an exercise that will be at best pointless and at worst potentially dangerous.

The big question, then, is why people are even proposing it. The answer becomes clear when you take into account who is agitating for it.

The calls for direct elections are coming primarily from Brazil’s left-wing activist movements in support of former president Lula. Lula is fighting not only for his political legacy, but also for his freedom. Right now, since he holds no elected office or political appointment, he does not benefit from the legal protections as his colleagues in the government. What he wants, more than anything else, is to get back his “Foro Privilegiado,” the rule that states that some government officials can only be tried by the Supreme Court. The benefit of the Supreme Court is obvious – while the lower courts have convicted hundreds of people and given out prison sentences totaling over one thousand years as a result of the Car Wash corruption investigations, the much slower and more lenient Supreme Court has yet to convict anyone.

It is clear that this is Lula’s agenda – last year, in the wake of Dilma’s impeachment scandal, he was caught on a wire tap talking to her about becoming her chief of staff. At the time, rumors were circulating that he would be arrested soon. In the recorded audio, Dilma speaks about sending over a document confirming his new position that he could use “if needed,” i.e., if the police showed up at his door. The Supreme Court blocked the appointment, calling it an attempt to evade prosecution. Since then, the Car Wash investigation has continued to close in on Lula, and many fear that if not imprisoned outright, he will at least banned from running for office sometime soon. The call for moving up direct elections is nothing but a transparent attempt to get himself back behind the Supreme Court’s protection before any of that can happen.

In conclusion, it makes absolutely no sense to fight for a controversial measure that will, in all likelihood, fail, and whose purpose is to save a corrupt politician from the legal consequences of his previous actions. To add insult to injury, the political gridlock this would cause would ensure that absolutely nothing will be done to fix Brazil’s dismal economic situation. That has real-life implications in terms of human suffering for the tens of millions of Brazilians who have lost their jobs and are otherwise struggling to make ends meet amid a protracted economic downturn.

Far better to just muddle through the procedure currently outlined in the constitution and wait for the next scheduled elections, in just over a year. Hopefully, by then, some new and better political figures will have emerged. Instead of “Diretas Já” (direct elections now), how about “Diretas Já Já”(direct elections soon)?

NOTE: By the way, this may all be moot, as there is yet another wrinkle in this story. Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal has, for the past three years, been weighing allegations that the Rousseff/Temer ticket won the presidential election of 2014 using illegal campaign funds. The court is expected to finally rule on this in the coming weeks. If they do find Rousseff and Temer guilty, they may annul their victory and call for snap elections anyway.

As Tom Jobim said, Brazil is not for beginners.