Brazil’s impeachment game

Brasil Observer - May 10 2016
Keeping the enemy closer: Dilma Rousseff receives the presidential sash during her inauguration ceremony on January 2015; next to her, the Vice President Michel Temer and his wife (Photo: José Cruz/Agência Brasil)

(Leia em Português)


Why has President Dilma Rousseff lost all of her political support and is now being removed from the presidency?


By James N. Green and Renan Quinalha*

A president elected by 54 million Brazilians, against whom there are no charges of corruption, has become the target of impeachment proceedings. The main reasons for her trial relate to supplemental budget decrees and delays in federal fund transfers to public banks in order to maintain social programs, a procedure known as “pedaladas fiscais” (tax pedaling). The country’s largest media conglomerates have relentlessly pushed for her ouster. Large corporate interests have sponsored mobilizations against the government, deepening the political crisis, in an effort to make the impeachment a fait accompli.

Ironically, Eduardo Cunha, the President of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies who presided over the impeachment process in the lower house of Congress, is being accused of corruption and money laundering (he was suspended by the Supreme Court). If convicted, he faces up to 180 years of imprisonment. Recently new charges were levelled against him. Cunha has used his power to obstruct investigations against his own malfeasance, including manipulating the Chamber’s Ethics Committee. After more than four months, the Supreme Court hasn’t decided on the request for his removal from office, nor has the Ethics Committee judged him after considering the case for half a year. Yet, he pushed through the impeachment proceedings in the Chamber of Deputies in record time.

Vice President Michel Temer, who belongs to the same party as Cunha, is openly organizing a new government, even before the successful impeachment of the current president. He has disclosed names he would nominate as ministers and suggested new government projects with the participation of opposition groups defeated in the 2014 election. Given the nature of coalition governments in Brazil, the vice president is elected along with the president according to the program presented by the head of the ticket. The vice president doesn’t run on his or her own program. However, instead of implementing the program he defended in the 2014 elections, which was registered in the Electoral Court, Temer has established a new programmatic agenda that prioritizes the demands of the most conservative sectors of Brazilian society. It includes reducing guaranteed minimum spending for social security and education, imposing greater restrictions on welfare policies, using the military in rural conflicts, overturning gun control measures, approving a conservative family law, and embracing other projects previously shelved because of popular opposition.

Many observers consider these measures to constitute a parliamentary coup (golpe) against a government that has lost majority support, faces an economic crisis, and is widely unpopular. The second term of the Rousseff government, which in fact has only just begun, is in a fragile state and seems to be already over.

Unfortunately, what matters least in the impeachment discussion today is the law. Impeachment is a political trial, no doubt, but there is a legal framework that is being pushed to the background. This was made clear in the report of the rapporteur in the Chamber and the pitiful justifications for votes given by Congressional representatives few weeks ago. While charged with “pedaladas fiscais,” Dilma Rousseff opponents in Congress focused on corruption and the economic crisis. The legal basis for her removal from office has become secondary to the political conflicts that have produced this crisis.

Why has President Dilma Rousseff lost all of her political support and now is being removed from the presidency through an impeachment process conducted by her former coalition allies when she had a 59% approval rating in her first term, which was even higher than that of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva?

In the Brazilian model of coalitional presidentialism, with more than thirty political parties, the party that elects the president usually doesn’t have a majority to govern on its own. In order to pass legislation, it needs to establish a broad agreement with other parties. The Workers’ Party (PT) has not escaped this rule. When Lula came to power in 2003, he needed to negotiate the support of several small parties. This led to the 2005 vote-buying corruption scandal, known as mensalão, because of the monthly payments given to coalition partners. In order to retain Congressional support, PT then opted for a more permanent alliance with the PMDB, and this party indicated Michel Temer as the PT’s coalition candidate for vice president in the 2010 election.

Soon after her inauguration in 2011, Dilma Rousseff began her first term with a “housecleaning” (faxina) after it was revealed that members of her coalition government were involved in corruption. She deposed the board of Furnas, a government controlled power utility, and dismantled a widespread corruption scheme within the Ministry of Transportation. Within a few months, seven ministers were dismissed on corruption charges, most of them members of allied parties.

At the same time, Rousseff’s government encouraged the creation of new small parties and fostered internal division within the PMDB to preserve the PT’s congressional hegemony. For example, in 2011, it helped to create the PSD led by Gilberto Kassab, and in 2013 Cid Gomes’ PROS. Although Dilma removed Romero Jucá from the government leadership in 2012, she unsuccessfully bet on Eduardo Braga against Renan Calheiros in the dispute for the presidency of the Senate and suffered a defeat with Eduardo Cunha’s election to the presidency of the Chamber.

Rousseff’s firm style of governance did not rely on dialogue with her coalition partners. This, coupled with a tendency to rule by decree, increased discontent among members of Congress. They demanded more government posts and budget allocations in exchange for coalition loyalty. Vice President Michel Temer even became responsible for government policy coordination.

But the fundamental turning point that led to the President’s fall from grace was not the 2014 elections. It was the June 2013 protests. Starting with an agenda for lower fares and better public transportation, the mobilizations mushroomed into demands for social rights, less corruption, and more political participation. More than merely dissatisfaction with the government or PT, it was against the political system as a whole and the lack of representation felt by different sectors of Brazilian society. The government didn’t know how to respond appropriately and failed to take advantage of the moment to initiate political reforms. After announcing some timid measures, Rousseff increasingly surrendered to PMDB pressures and to the political establishment, ignoring the demands of the streets and dismissing the protests of June 2013 as a “conservative” movement.

In the 2014 elections, these sentiments articulated and the 2013 protests reappeared. Rousseff’s campaign tried to respond to these demands and managed a narrow victory precisely by trying to incorporate some items into her government’s program. But after the victory, she failed to fulfil her electoral promises.

The opposition questioned the results of the elections and unsuccessfully asked for a recount. Soon thereafter, a sharp drop in commodity prices and a rise in the price of electricity and gasoline engendered popular discontent. The economic crisis worsened with a decline in the GDP, rising inflation, and increased unemployment. Conservative fiscal adjustment measures exacerbated the situation. The investigations of “money changers” (doleiros) in Curitiba exposed a widespread corruption system for financing election campaigns through Petrobras, the state oil company. This operation, called Lava Jato (“Car Wash”), took on a clearly anti-government character, with a series of excesses and arbitrary procedures that jeopardized justice and the rule of law.

On March 8, 2015, as Dilma Rousseff spoke on national television, protesters beat pots and pans in the first panelaço. On the 18th of the same month, the first major mass mobilization against the government occurred. The government’s disapproval rate reached 62%. Since then, panelaços and demonstrations have recurred. Public opinion, promoted by the media, by sectors of the business community, and by selective leaks of the judiciary of corruption investigations, has turned the presidential impeachment into a magic solution to the crisis.

Between a rock and a hard place, and under pressure from conservatives, Rousseff continued giving even more space to the PMDB in successive ministerial reforms. This immobilized her government and her popularity collapsed. The side effect of this rearrangement, which at first glance seemed to ward off the threat of impeachment, was clear: the government had come undone and surrendered to conservative forces. It was unable to engage and mobilize the social bases that elected it and deliver what it had promised in the campaign. In spite of following the rules of the game, Rousseff and PT could not guarantee and sustain power. Unable to dialogue or bargain with her coalition partners and incapable of abandoning age-old clientelistic practices, the government’s crisis deepened.

It is clear that “Lulism” – a concept coined by André Singer – is exhausted. According to Singer, Lulism is a “weak reformist” project that succeeded in large part due to a favourable boom in commodity prices. This in turn allowed for more social programs that modestly redistributed wealth. It required a broad agreement among diverse interests. Advanced social policies were approved, however, through the worst wheeling and dealing practices of the political establishment, which was how Lula neutralized many conflicts. When, in June 2013, the mobilizations challenged the political system, the government chose to preserve itself by resorting the politics as usual.

In many ways, the crisis of Dilma Rousseff’s government is a manifestation of a broader crisis of the political system, which has been unable to respond to society’s demands for more democracy and rights. It relies on conservative approaches to governance, often through super-majorities in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate and behind the scenes deals to gain support.

Thus, it is no wonder that the population is sick of politicians and does not trust political institutions. According to research conducted by Datafolha in March 2016, the percentage of the population that defends the impeachment of Rousseff and Temer is the same: 60%. The public also mistrusts Congress. Thus, it is clear that the impeachment will not solve Brazil’s current crisis. It will only reinforce an old tradition of coups and institutional ruptures against democracy and the rule of law.


  • James N. Green is Professor of Brazilian History and Culture at Brown University and the director of Brown’s Brazil Initiative. Renan Quinalha is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of São Paulo, with a B.A. and M.A. in law from the University of São Paulo.