Brazil’s political crisis explained

(Originally published in Folha English)

There is no easy explanation as to why, just under a year after being reelected by a narrow margin, President Dilma Rousseff runs the risk of not completing her term in office. It took respected consultancy firm Eurasia months, for example, to weigh up all the factors and raise the chances of her resigning or being impeached from 30% to 40%. But one thing is easy to predict: whatever the outcome, the current climate of polarization is here for a while – perhaps even until after the next elections.

Although opposition militants argue that Rousseff has only herself to blame for her troubles, pro-government forces place the blame on kingmaker party the PMDB, and defeated PSDB presidential candidate Aécio Neves. Leftist groups continue to defend Rousseff’s mandate but oppose her fiscal policies. While it is difficult to know where the saga will end, there are clear reasons behind Brazil’s political crisis.

The aggressive, toxic campaigns waged by both candidates in last year’s elections are as good a place to start as any. Rousseff came close to defeat against Neves, who himself only made it to the second round run-off on the final straight – environmentalist Marina Silva had been running second in the polls until then. And the contest was only so tight in the first place because of a sluggish economy and the emergence of a new wave of scandals involving key members of the government. In 2013 most bets had been on Rousseff’s reelection.

After a narrow defeat, Neves barely recognized his opponent’s victory in his concession speech. Such a tight margin, the closest in Brazilian history, had two immediate effects: a smaller mandate for the winner and more sore loser griping from the other side. Impeachment talk emerged right after Rousseff was proclaimed the victor, and today it often feels as though the election never ended.

After a leftist-sounding campaign, the president turned her attention to the financial markets in a manner that shocked many of her voters. After much indecision, she picked American-trained Bradesco Bank economist Joaquim Levy to be her Finance Minister, and appointed a number of other conservative ministers, some of whom would have been more comfortable in a Neves cabinet. Before the end of the year she had managed to lose touch with her base, while at the same time failing to win over her adversaries.

Since then the crisis has all been about the government’s controversial ally, the PMDB. The centrist party, which has itself been associated with scandal more than a few times in the past, was never 100% on Rousseff’s side, and today it would be a push to argue that even 50% of its deputies and senators are still with the president. During the campaign some of the party’s key figures were already placing their bets on Neves, and the division has remained even after the president’s victory.

But it got much worse. Congressman Eduardo Cunha, her main adversary in the party, decided to fight for the role of Speaker of the Lower House until February 2017. Government forces chose someone else. Cunha prevailed anyway and now the opposition decided to play ball with him.

Rousseff believed that her decisions would restore the credibility she had lost in her first term thanks to growing spending and the use of backpedaling, a form of delaying repayments to lenders who had provided money to pay for welfare programs, making the country’s books appear more robust than was actually the case – a breach of fiscal responsibility laws say the opposition, but common accounting practice according to the government.

But in fact those unpopular steps, which contradicted profoundly with the tone of Rousseff’s campaign, were eating away at her popularity. The Lower House, led by Cunha, began to think of ways to put further pressure on an already unpopular president.

The lack of enthusiasm for the new administration had been evident since January 1st, when Rousseff’s somewhat flat inauguration was attended by less than 5,000 people – around 10 times fewer than at the start of her first term. Rousseff picked a number of ministers that patently had few qualifications for their positions, solely to maintain the support of their parties in Congress. Cunha’s election as speaker may have been the first sign that the strategy had failed, but others have followed.

Despite being involved in multiple scandals, including the Petrobras investigation, Cunha is a wily strategist. With the speakership he had the power to define the Lower House voting schedule, and to choose which congressional inquiries would move forward. This latter power includes what is described as “an atomic bomb” in Brasilia: in other words, whether or not to allow an impeachment process against the president to progress.

When Rousseff’s popularity sunk to single digits, all the opposition, which had been repeatedly stirring up protests against the president, needed was a motive to seek impeachment, and in Cunha they had found a willing ally.

Three possibilities have now emerged. One is to find a direct link between the president and the Petrobras scandal, while another option is for the Superior Electoral Court to strip both her and Vice-President Michel Temer of their positions because of the use of supposedly illegal funds in their election campaign. The third potential outcome, meanwhile, is to accuse Rousseff of breaking fiscal responsibility laws in the form of the aforementioned backpedaling.

All these three possibilities remain in play, but none are conclusive. If proven, they would also result in different outcomes: in the first and the third cases, Temer would take over from Rousseff, although rumors have suggested the vice-president himself may be implicated in the Petrobras scandal – something he has already denied.

If both Rousseff and Temer go, runner-up Neves would take over, with even those in opposition recognizing that such a decision by the Superior Electoral Court would not necessarily give them the legitimacy they would need to govern. Since the restoration of democracy in Brazil in 1985, impeachment charges have been brought only against President Fernando Collor de Mello, in 1992, when he was directly linked to corruption scandals that had emerged during his term, showing the difference between the two cases.

Rousseff has relied on a number of factors to keep her job. The first is her turbulent yet enduring relationship with former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the main power behind the Worker’s Party. She also hopes to maintain her alliance with the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, who could also yet be implicated in the Petrobras scandal. The third is the pragmatism of many business leaders, who think impeachment would represent a major setback for a young democracy.

Further complicating matters is that in the event that impeachment proceedings are instigated in the Lower House, Rousseff may decide to take her case to the Supreme Court. Unlike congressmen, Brazilian supreme court justices have little interest in the polls and nor are they yet much concerned with the discussion about investigations of the Petrobras scandal — they just care about the facts. It appears impossible to tell what the outcome of such an action might be. Brazil is not for beginners, as the songwriter Tom Jobim once memorably said – and the complexities of the current political crisis show that his words are as true now as ever.

Brazil’s institutions do fight corruption, but people are still tolerant

After waves of colossal protests in 2013 and 2015, it is very tempting to say Brazilians are fed up with corruption and want real transparency and accountability for whatever is done in their name. That may hold true for well-educated and politically savvy people that are now reshaping the country’s institutions; judges, prosecutors, investigators, controllers, intelligence agents, technocrats… But that vast majority in Brazil actually cares too little. Organized society is disorganized and citizen engagement isn’t nearly as important as it is in developed nations. Unlike the protesting crowds suggest, Brazilians only care about corruption when it involves those they reject for other reasons.

A favorite among political leaders is to say that mechanisms against corruption have to be discussed with society. But on the sidelines they say it loud and clear: society rarely talks back. “Brazilians love to speak out when those scandals are on the news, but that is just a thing that they say,” an independent congresswoman once told me. “They say that they care, but they don’t even follow who they voted for. One of my colleagues is wanted by Interpol and he repeatedly gets reelected by many of those that want to fight corruption all the time. Brazil is doing better, but it is because of policy makers and political leaders, regrettably it is not because of voters. I wish that they cared.”

That comes from someone who works in the institution that best represents Brazilian tolerance towards corruption: our clearly unaccountable and proud of it Congress. Our senators and representatives are just as flawed as average people, who react to every new scandal with a scandalous meh. Indignation indeed cooks for very long until it bursts its bubble in Brazil. Accusations that would end careers of whips and speakers in other nations often “end in a pizza” here — that expression means no condemnation at all. Politicians caught red-handed will only resign if almost all their peers reject their presence. When it does happen, the process could take more than two months.

If voters cared more about corruption that would be solved presto.

Yes, Brazilians do protest now against the sensation of accumulated corruption. And some are willing to go to the streets against a political party they dislike when it is involved in a big scheme. But that outrage is selective. It is as if there were right-wing and left-wing crimes. People pick and choose what to protest against. That is why there is such a slow pace for public reaction against corruption cases; people start by thinking any accusation is both true and a result of partisanship. When the corrupt have more time to deal with charges, impunity tends to prevail. Maybe it would be different if there were a widespread sense of urgency coming from citizens.

If Brazilians cared enough about corruption there would be a bigger scrutiny on each of the more than 50 politicians involved in the current Petrobras scandal. Quite on the contrary. Most are simply ignored and carry on doing whatever they like. Some others are hailed as heroes. On the opposition side, there are many advocates for controversial speaker Eduardo Cunha, a man that has dozens and dozens of accusations against him — the fondness comes because he has the right to start an impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. On the pro-government camp, many cherish former minister José Dirceu because he illegally acted as a lobbyist to constructors so he could embezzle funds for the Worker’s Party (PT). All these folks still take selfies with voters.

Dirceu is one of these exceptions to the rule, many people love to hate him. He cannot fly in commercial planes for the sheer risk of being attacked, as happened multiple times. But even in that case it has more to do with very partisan citizens taking action against a PT leader that was very powerful. The vast majority won’t have any idea of what the former Chief of Staff for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did — he was convicted for leading a kick-backs for political support scheme, but there is so much press for him that he has been accused of almost every crime. Other politicians that are as convicted as he is never get the same treatment. They can go anywhere they like. Opposition leaders that were caught are given the benefit of the doubt of their followers.

On the pro-government side that flawed anti-corruption vision is more evident now. Although they were very determined to call foul during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso years at the Palácio do Planalto (1995-2002), they just gave a pass to President Lula (2003-2010) whenever a scandal emerged. After all, they would suggest, what really mattered were the social programs and the economic development Brazil was experiencing. Those in the Worker’s Party who were keen on pointing all the crimes that leaders were involved in… Well, they were shown out. They could only do that because average people kept a high tolerance towards corruption. Now that the economic tide has changed, these fans channel some of their income frustrations in the debate about corruption.

At the same time that Brazil’s leaders managed to reinforce institutions and end the times in which the wealthy and privileged never got to see a jail from the inside, João Average only wanted to buy a new gigantic TV set. A TV set that he turns off when the news are on — it is such a downer… He is sure that there is corruption everywhere in government, but will only keep buzzwords on his mind, like Petrobras, mensalão, subway cartel. He might even go to protests. It could be that slightly left-wing one of two years ago or the right-wing ones of today. But that kind of presence has more to do with pre or post-election dissatisfaction than with an anti-corruption agenda. Not that people are for corruption, but they can’t elaborate an agenda to fight it.

That is why speaker Cunha remains unknown to many Brazilians and gets to keep his job despite the accusation of taking more than US$ 5 million from a lobbyist. He might be removed by the Supreme Court without a single protest in front of his house — and that is basically because the institutions are working.

Political ignorance surely isn’t a Brazilian exclusive, but here tolerance with corruption and ignorance walk hand in hand like in few places. To make their combat to corruption more effective, Brazil needs more than improving institutions; it needs people to mature in the political debate. One that observes the quality of the Brazilian public square can only conclude that real improvement and a change in the tolerance culture will take quite a while.


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