Following months of political hokey-cokey in Brazil, a decision may have finally been reached. After weeks that saw a congressional vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff annulled by the interim speaker – before being rapidly reinstated – Wednesday’s marathon session in the senate resulted in a 55/22 vote to suspend the president for 6 months, pending a further senate trial.
Former PMBD coalition partner and vice-president Michel Temer has wasted little time in stepping up to the presidential plate in an interim capacity, armed with a well-practiced first address to the nation.
But with another semi-judicial process to go through, potential criminal proceedings against Ms. Rousseff and a wider Lava Jato corruption investigation that refuses to go away, this latest turn of events looks more like the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end.
Naturally enough, the result of the vote set off squawks of a coup from Ms. Rousseff’s domestic and international backers: Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro took time off from his busy schedule ignoring the chaos in his own country to blame the impeachment on a US-backed plot.
However, the magnitude of the majority in the senate vote against Ms. Rousseff suggests that this outcome is not the imposition of political minority, a point backed up by the regular popular demonstrations against the Rousseff administration that have clogged the arteries of Brazilian cities for the last 18 months.
More significantly, it is telling that Ms. Rousseff and the top brass at her Worker’s Party (PT) do not actually contest the charges that have led to her potential impeachment.
The allegations relate to creative government accounting – known locally as pedaladas – in the run up to the 2014 presidential election. The Rousseff administration stands accused of taking unauthorised loans from – among others – state banks Caixa Econômica and Banco do Brasil to balance the books and pump money into popular social programmes ahead of a hard-fought campaign that saw the PT run out winners by a slim 3% margin. If true, these actions would represent a direct contravention of Brazil’s fiscal responsibility laws and concrete grounds for impeachment.
Rather than fight the charges directly, the PT points to the fact that similar behaviour is not uncommon among Brazilian presidents. This defence does reflect reality, particularly under the previous Lula and Cardoso governments, but the question is one of scale: neither Lula nor Cardoso took loans in excess of R$1bn from state institutions – a rounding error for an economy the size of Brazil – and all were repaid promptly. By contrast, the use of pedaladas increased to R$52.2bn with Ms. Rousseff’s return for a second presidential term at the end of 2014, and proliferated into the following fiscal year through a series of “special decrees”.
But as any good South American politician will tell you, Dilma’s cardinal error has not been in her government’s financial irregularities but in her inability to maintain a semblance of popularity.
Handed the unenviable task of keeping the PT seat in the Planalto Palace warm for the widely-favoured former president Lula ahead of his expected presidential campaign in 2018, Ms. Rousseff’s approval ratings have rarely climbed above 10% in the last year.
Moreover, she has found herself in the middle of a perfect storm: a serious economic malaise – a 3.5% shrinkage in Brazil’s GDP in 2015 and rocketing unemployment – and a series of corruption scandals that have rocked the Brazilian establishment, plus the breakdown of the PT-PMDB governing coalition in March, not to mention a series of negative headlines regarding August’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, 2002 World Cup hero Rivaldo warning tourist to stay away and ongoing concerns over the Zika virus.
In a presidential system, the figurehead rapidly becomes the lightning rod for the problems of the nation. For months now, Dilma has been playing golf in a thunderstorm, beset by domestic woes and increasingly surrounded by political adversaries sharpening their knives.
Ms. Rousseff’s supporters will accuse her opponents of political opportunism, pointing out that the impeachment process would never have happened were it not for a broader set of circumstances. In this they would be quite correct. But it must be remembered that the impeachment is fundamentally a political process, with only a rough grounding in judicial systems. Legally, Dilma has done enough to technically be impeached; politics, circumstance and a dearth of popular support have done the rest.
So step forward Michel Temer, law professor and President of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB).
Brazil’s new acting president took to the podium on Thursday promising a “government of national salvation”, a bold proposition but one that saw the BOVESPA Index gain slightly in response to the business-friendly leader’s words. However, if observers of Brazil have learnt anything from the last year, it is that gains are illusory and steady courses of action are remarkably impermanent.
In his first speech, Mr. Temer outlined the two main issues faced by his nascent administration: Firstly, the task of steering the Brazilian economy back on track and balancing the government accounts, whilst reaffirming his commitment to the previous government’s social spending, presumably in an effort to stifle some of the more worrying noises emanating from his new cabinet.
Secondly, the new premier highlighted the importance of restoring popular faith in Brazil’s ruling class in the wake of several all-encompassing corruption scandals. Many in congress – some 60%, according to monitoring agency Transparência Brasil – would have been hoping that the almost-certain toppling of President Rousseff would lift the pall of investigation from over their own heads. Not so, claimed Mr Temer, who avowed his backing for Operação Lava Jato, despite the fact that he has been linked with the ongoing corruption case on more than one occasion. It was an act of astonishing probity or chutzpah, depending on your political persuasion.
And so Michel Temer begins his first 100 days as President-by-Default. Theoretically, Ms. Rousseff could yet survive an impeachment trial, but the weight of public, congressional and senatorial opposition make this a vanishingly unlikely prospect. Yet despite his own lack of both popularity and democratic mandate, Mr Temer can get to work safe in the knowledge that, for Brazil in 2016, to lose one president may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like anarchy.