Though it is attracting remarkably little notice around the world, Brazil is quietly completing the process of replacing its democratically elected President with an appointed one.
Dilma Rousseff, elected President of Brazil in 2010 and re-elected in October 2014 with 51.6% of the vote in the election’s second round, was suspended from her elected office in April 2016 by votes in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate. She is now undergoing trial for impeachment before the Senate.
By general consensus Rousseff was a less than successful President of Brazil. She has herself admitted mistakes. She never asserted her authority effectively and proved to be a less than competent and at times erratic manager of the Brazilian economy. She completely lacked the charisma and authority of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who chose her as his successor, and whose shadow she never fully escaped
The single factor that probably eroded Rousseff’s support more than any other was Brazil’s fall into recession soon after her re-election in 2014. Coming after a decade of rapid growth and rising living standards, this came as a shock for many Brazilians, and lost her support within her working class electoral base.
Whilst a strong case can be made that Rousseff handled the recession badly, it is important to say that she did not cause it. As a major commodities exporter Brazil was inevitably hit hard by the collapse in oil and commodity prices which began in mid 2014. That would have inevitably caused a recession in Brazil whoever was President.
There have been some overblown claims that the recession was the worst in Brazilian history and that this was due to Rousseff’s mismanagement. However anyone at all familiar with Brazilian history knows this is not true. As it happens the Brazilian economy steadied around the time Rousseff was suspended from office, a fact that points to the deeper structural reasons that were its cause rather than her mismanagement.
Though it was the recession that eroded Rousseff’s support within her electoral base, another factor which has been used against her by her political enemies is the revelation of kickbacks to senior members of Rousseff’s party by the state oil company Petrobas, which is currently under investigation by the Brazilian police in a probe that goes by the name “Operation Car Wash”.
Rousseff herself is however universally acknowledged to be personally free of corruption, whilst it seems the kickbacks paid by Petrobas extended far beyond Rousseff’s party. Though the Petrobas scandal was exploited by Rousseff’s enemies to discredit her – with allegations that the police and judiciary’s handling of Operation Car Wash has become highly politicised – it forms no part of the impeachment charges against her.
These centre on certain complex budget and accounting manoeuvres Rousseff’s government carried out during the recession. Whilst budget and accounting manoeuvres are definitely violations of budget laws in Brazil as in most countries, they are hardly rare whether in Brazil or elsewhere, and to impeach the country’s democratically elected President and remove her from office on the strength of them seems wildly disproportionate.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that the entire impeachment process is an essentially political device to oust from office a democratically elected leftist President in a country that has been dominated for most of its recent history by the political right. Though the deputies in the Chamber who voted for Rousseff’s impeachment came from many parties (including her own) since her suspension from office Brazil’s government has taken a definite right turn, which seems to have been what this exercise was really about.
This is very bad for Brazil. The country has had a difficult history of political instability and violence. Within living memory Brazil has experienced two long periods of dictatorship (under Getulio Vargas from 1930 to 1945, and under the military from 1964 to 1985), military coups in 1930 and 1964, an attempted military coup in 1954 (aborted by the suicide of the then President, the former dictator Getulio Vargas), and extreme political violence during the period of military rule from 1964 to 1985, in which Dilma Rousseff herself became involved as an urban guerrilla before being captured and tortured by the military. As is true in most of Latin America class and political conflict in Brazil is intense.
Brazil also suffers from deep seated problems of violent crime and corruption. The recent holding of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro highlighted the degree to which the slum areas of the city – the favelas – are to a great extent controlled by heavily armed criminal gangs and have become no-go areas for the police. Meanwhile the irony that one of Brazil’s few genuinely non-corrupt politicians – Dilma Rousseff – is being impeached in the middle of a corruption scandal by a political system rife with corruption is lost on no-one.
In such a fragile system removing a democratically elected leader through a grossly partial impeachment process is not only profoundly undemocratic. It is also fraught with risk, and can only add to the already dangerously high levels of cynicism and alienation which exist in the country.
Brazil is a country with enormous potential. Possessing huge natural resources, a large, young and dynamic population, a by no means insignificant industrial base, a potentially strong commercial and financial hub in Sao Paulo, no external enemies to speak of, secure borders, and with large areas of the south of the country as developed and as wealthy as many places in Europe and north America, Brazil should be a world leader.
It is Brazil’s deeply corrupt, dysfunctional and highly polarised political system which is holding the country back. By removing its democratically elected leader Brazil’s political class has just ensured that it remains corrupt, dysfunctional and highly polarised still.