Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is this week one step closer to impeachment following a successful vote of 367 to 137 by the lower house.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff criticized the impeachment process as an “illegitimate” and groundless act led by lawmakers who are themselves under a shadow of scandal.
The statements set the tone for a last-ditch push to rebuild support for her embattled presidency as the impeachment process moves to the Senate, where a political trial is expected to get under way by mid-May. Ms. Rousseff is accused of breaking a fiscal responsibility law by using accounting tricks to mask Brazil’s widening deficits—a practice she says was also used by several previous presidents and never considered illegal.
Instead, Ms. Rousseff described the accounting issue as a pretext to convict her by politicians who were acting in their self-interests. The speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, who oversaw the vote in Congress, is under indictment on corruption charges and began the impeachment proceedings on the same day Ms. Rousseff’s party declined to back Mr. Cunha in an ethics inquiry. Mr. Cunha has said his decision to bring impeachment was purely technical.
“It was an injustice to me because those who presided over it are accused of illegality,” Ms. Rousseff told reporters at a news conference late Monday. “It was an immense violence against truth, democracy and the rule of law.”
Then Brazil’s congress voted yesterday to launch impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, democracy took the form of a farce. The attempt to remove the democratically elected president – who won 54 million votes and is not charged with any crimes – was led by a man accused of corruption and money laundering: Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house. On this historic day, Brazilians learned a dangerous lesson about their young democracy: their votes aren’t worth much.
With 367 of the 513 deputies backing impeachment, Rousseff may now be removed from office for delaying fund transfers to state banks so that the government’s finances would appear healthier than they are, and for allegedly violating budget laws. Brazil’s leaders have often resorted to this budgetary trick. Unlike the president, a good share of those who voted to oust her are under investigation for crimes ranging from corruption to the use of slave labour.
If the senate – the upper house – now decides to carry out an impeachment trial, Rousseff will be suspended for a maximum of 180 days and the vice-president – Michel Temer, known in Brazil as the “vice conspirator” – will take over. If Rousseff is convicted, Temer (like Cunha, a member of the conservative Democratic Movement party, or PMDB) will stay.
Temer’s latest betrayal of his former running mate was an inventive wiretap – of himself. Assuming Rousseff would be ousted, days before the vote he used WhatsApp to “accidentally” send a recording of his proposed victory speech to party cohorts, announcing what his plans would be as president. To borrow the biblical images so popular in congress, compared to Temer, Judas is a rookie.
If the senate confirms impeachment, the future president will be a politician without votes. If elections were held today, according to the latest survey by DataFolha, Temer would garner 1% to 2% of the votes.
This comedy of errors might seem to suggest that Rousseff and the Workers’ party (PT) are merely victims. But that is only a part of the truth. Rousseff waged the dirtiest presidential campaign since redemocratisation, demonising her adversaries. Shortly into her second mandate, she reneged on campaign promises, doing the reverse of what she had pledged and bringing losses to workers. The economic crisis deepened, leaving nearly 10 million Brazilians jobless. Even PT sympathisers think the president is incompetent.
Frightened by the rising tide of street protests, Rousseff and the PT began raffling off political posts and principles in exchange for support against impeachment. Holed up in recent weeks in a hotel room in Brasilia, the federal capital, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became the great negotiator. At the vice-presidential palace, Temer made counter-offers. Up until the last vote was cast, impeachment was a matter of horse-trading.
Those who were betrayed are also traitors, making the aftermath of the vote much more complicated. This is why some of those out on the street demonstrating against Rousseff’s impeachment kept insisting that they were “defending democracy, not the government”. For some on the left, there has been no defending the government for a long time. The red-garbed pro-democracy protesters were only in the streets out of respect for the ballot box and because they feel the PT is the “lesser of the evils”. On the other side, and in larger numbers, were those dressed in the Brazilian flag’s green and yellow, shouting for impeachment. After yesterday’s vote, some factions of the PT began discussing the possibility of calling new elections this year.
Two issues will weigh heavily in deciding Brazil’s immediate future. One concerns the PT’s legacy and the reshaping of forces on the left. The other is the fate of Operation Carwash, an investigation by the federal police, public attorney and judiciary into corruption schemes involving the government and major construction companies.
If the president is removed, a significant share of the electorate may embrace the storyline that casts the PT solely as a victim. This would deepen the hole which the Brazilian left has dug for itself since the PT became corrupted by power, joined forces with longstanding political oligarchies, and betrayed its dearest causes. If impeachment is framed only as a coup against democracy, the PT may again evade responsibility for its own mistakes, which have been numerous. It may also put off rethinking its failed ideas about the country and development. And this will further delay the left’s construction of a new project for Brazil, incorporating the creative power of the June 2013 protests.
Although the PT is held up as the symbol of corruption in Brazil, it is just one in a crowd. Over 60 years ago Brazil’s big construction firms built the modernist capital of Brasilia, and never again vacated the centre of political power. Whistle-blowing by top executives has shown that all the major parties may be implicated in corruption schemes.
Rousseff’s impeachment has been classified as an attempt to sacrifice the PT to save other parties. In this scenario, Temer, as president, would strip the federal police of funding and autonomy, smothering Operation Carwash in the name of a right-leaning national pact supported by the business class.
This manoeuvre would be swallowed by an exhausted nation, eager for any kind of normality, even if a mirage. Instead of cleaning up relations between the government and construction firms and bringing about profound political reform, everything would be renegotiated back to where it was. If this unsettling possibility comes to fruition, instead of peace there will be oblivion.
Brazil’s crisis is not only political and economic, it is also one of identity. Since the 2013 protests the cliched images that stare back at the country when it looks in the mirror no longer ring true. When people with differing opinions must be separated by an actual wall to keep them from attacking each other, it spells the death of the stereotype of a cordial and hospitable people who had supposedly overcome racism and inequalities without any confrontations. Perhaps Brazilians still need to figure out who they are, but they have already begun to understand who they are not. The contradictions can no longer be stifled