On April 17th the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian National Congress, voted overwhelmingly to advance the seemingly unstoppable motion to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. It will now continue up to the Senate. It was a rowdy and theatrical performance complete with members throwing insults and even spitting. Rousseff’s opposition is seeking, so far rather successfully, to impeach her on the grounds of… well nobody is entirely sure on what grounds.
You see, most of the millions who took to the streets to demonstrate against her in March would tell you is that she is generally corrupt and/or economically incompetent, and therefore must go. But aside from the fact it is highly arguable whether this would be means for impeachment, which according to the Brazilian constitution requires a concrete crime to have been committed, it is not even the stated reason.
Technically, she is being impeached on the grounds of allegedly fiddling budget figures in the run-up to the 2014 election (a relatively innocuous misdemeanour in the context of Brazilian politics), but you would never have guessed as much from the various reasons the members of the house gave, which ranged from “so that we don’t become Reds like in Venezuela and North Korea” to “for my unborn daughter”.
Dilma is wildly unpopular, with her approval rating languishing around 10 percent
In reality, it is an excuse for opportunists to get rid of her. A laughable committee, more than half of whose members were, unlike the oh-so-corrupt Rousseff, under investigation in the ongoing corruption scandal, determined that the aforementioned alleged fiddling qualifies as justification for impeachment proceedings. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. Dilma is wildly unpopular, with her approval rating languishing around 10 percent; memories of a time where it stood above 90 percent have long since faded. This is why the impeachment attempt will be successful: the idea that you can and should impeach a democratically elected leader, once it reaches the stage where they are widely disliked and disapproved of, seems to be prevailing, and the irony of crying “democracy!” while doing so is being missed.
“It is the start of a new Brazil; a Brazil marked by full democracy, by respect for judicial powers, for our laws. Everything will be better.” These are the words proclaimed by a young Brazilian, clad in his nation’s football shirt and with a tear in his eye, to an Al Jazeera camera crew in the wake of the vote.
Impassioned though this declaration was, I am finding it difficult to uncover even a small amount of convincing evidence to suggest that the impeachment of President Rousseff will solve any of Brazil’s problems.
In the midst of a corruption scandal of biblical proportions, Rousseff’s opposition have been successfully depicting her impeachment as the solution. They promote the notion that her impeachment will be the swift guillotine of justice to finally remove the irretrievably corrupt head of Brazil, in the form of Rousseff. The reality of the situation is that she isn’t half as dangerous as those selling this lie to the people.
The notorious levels of corruption throughout the Brazilian establishment, in Rousseff’s party and others, are no new thing. However, the two-year-old Operation Car Wash, which initially focussed on money laundering but has spiralled into an enormous investigation implicating state oil company Petrobras along with half of the political establishment, has forced it to the forefront of public consciousness. As a result of this, accountability is finally arriving in this young democracy, so that the complacent corrupt are seeing their reign of impunity threatened for the very first time. Marcelo Odebrecht, for example, billionaire CEO of Latin America’s largest construction company, has been sentenced to 19 years in prison for buying contracts.
In the context of this political landscape, the idea that bringing one person down could solve such a situation is nothing less than facile and lazy. Dare I suggest that certain figures might be looking to create a distraction, now that the unprecedented possibility suddenly exists that they could face justice for their rampant and enduring crime and corruption?
Imagine an evangelical version of John Bercow, only far more conservative and far, far more partisan.
Take, for example, the ringleader of the hunt and Rousseff’s arch-rival Eduardo Cunha, who presides over the Chamber of Deputies, overseeing the vote which took place on the 17th. Imagine an evangelical version of John Bercow, only far more conservative and far, far more partisan. In his role as speaker of the house, he makes no pretence at impartiality, and it is no secret that he harbours a special hatred for Rousseff.
Cunha, who by the way opposes abortion and gay rights, is no stranger to allegations of corruption and scandal. In fact, his career has been tainted by them. And, unlike Rousseff, he has been charged in Operation Car Wash. Are you recognising a pattern? In August of 2015, Cunha was charged with accepting up to $40 million in bribes for himself and his allies, and laundering that money through an evangelical megachurch. Yes, really.
Already powerful, Cunha stands to wield more power than almost any other politician in a post-Rousseff Brazil. Perhaps more pertinent than that, however, is the fact that creating political upheaval and chaos, not to mention directing public frustration and hostility towards the President, is likely to distract people from his charges.
But Rousseff’s supreme unpopularity is not just a result of the clearly ridiculous perception that she is particularly corrupt. Another reason calls for her impeachment are so loud is the impression that she has mishandled the economy and somehow brought about the current recession.
Her Workers’ Party, which has presided over Brazil since October 2002, culminating in Rousseff’s presidency from 2010, espoused social welfare policies which lifted 26 million out of poverty between 2003-13, creating a burgeoning new middle class in the country and strong and consistent economic growth.
Many Brazilians who had previously been in poverty thought things had finally changed for good.
Consequently, the noughties was a time of hope and excitement over Brazil’s rapid development. People were throwing around the BRIC acronym, there was the kind of political stability most Brazilians would love to have back today, enormous oil reserves were discovered, and bids for both the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup were won, showing how much the international community was willing to bank on the nation’s encouraging future. The global financial crisis was barely felt there. Many Brazilians who had previously been in poverty thought things had finally changed for good.
This all came to an abrupt end when Brazil entered a downturn and a deep recession. The economy contracted by 3.8 percent in 2015 and is predicted to shrink by over 3 percent again this year. This is widely reported to have been a result of falling commodities prices, Brazil being a country which relies heavily on commodities exports, as well as, crucially, falling demand from China, with whom Brazil is in something of a symbiotic economic relationship. This economic regression and instability has seen many slide back into poverty, causing frustration, disillusion and anger, most of which has been directed towards Rousseff.
According to her opposition, this state of affairs has nothing to do with commodities or China: it is a direct result of Rousseff’s economic mismanagement, and she must therefore be removed from power. But in the case of Rousseff’s impeachment, would the opposition really offer an economic alternative that would improve the lives of these people?
Fortunately, Michel Temer, Rousseff’s Vice President, who has complained of what he sees as a merely “decorative” role in government, has already answered that question. Vice President Temer, a big-shot former lawyer married to a beauty queen 43 years his junior, is seen as a traitor by many. He confirmed widely-held suspicions that he had opted not to help his President through chaotic times, but rather to gear up for his own ascent to power, by writing a manifesto for his eventual takeover. From his future administration, Brazilians can expect increased austerity, the retraction of workers’ rights, the removal of constitutional mandates on health and education spending, and the revision of welfare programmes. So probably not the knight in shining armour that will give Brazil’s working class a taste of social mobility again.
If you can believe it, a recording was leaked just under a week before the impeachment vote, of Temer apparently practising his first address to the nation. He had sent it to the wrong WhatsApp group. Temer, who is so blatantly after Rousseff’s job, will finally achieve his wish of taking over the moment the impeachment is confirmed.
It is unclear whether Cunha and turncoat Temer, the architects of Dilma’s demise and likely inheritors of huge amounts of power after she is gone, constitute the “new Brazil” which that young Brazilian and so many others seem to think impeachment will bring. What does seem fairly obvious, however, is that any “full democracy” and “respect for judicial powers” will not come from them.
Through impeaching Rousseff, it appears that people truly believe they will be paving the way for a fresh and corruption-free start. It has been sold as a pill that will cure the plague of corrupt Brazilian politicians, in this case exemplified by Rousseff, despite the fact that she, unlike so many of those who want to topple her, has not been charged with corruption. It has become a farcical witch-hunt, masterminded by some of the most odious people in the Brazilian political class, with the intention of ousting one of the least. The casual observer, confronted with the images of crowds baying for her blood, could almost be forgiven for assuming that Rousseff is the rotten apple. In fact, she is one of the best of an emetically putrid bunch.
Image: Roberto Stuckert Filho