Brazil: Giant on a precipice´

18.05.16 Publication:

vote to impeach a president is, in any country, a kind of political nuclear
weapon: it should be a very last resort, for such an extreme act can have
extreme consequences. The consequences in Brazil, where the Senate has voted to
open the impeachment trial of Dilma Rousseff, the president who Brazilians
re-elected for a second term only in 2014, could turn out to be highly
constructive for that country’s democracy, or highly destructive.

            In principle, the political events
in South America’s largest country that have led up to this impeachment can be
seen as representing the strength of Brazil’s political institutions. Mrs
Rousseff’s downfall comes in the wake of a brave but well-supported
investigation into corruption centred on the country’s largest company,
Petrobras, its state-owned oil and gas producer, by prosecutors.

            What Mrs Rousseff has been put on
trial for is not corruption, even though part of her role as President has been
to be Chairwoman of Petrobras. Instead she has been accused of falsifying
official statistics on government finances in the run-up to the 2014
presidential election so as to make her administration look better.

That might sound a rather technical, or even typical,
offence – don’t all governments manipulate the facts to make themselves look
better? – but as her victory was quite narrow, it is being interpreted as a
form of electoral fraud. So this impeachment trial can be seen as an effort, by
Brazil’s political classes, to uphold high standards of electoral probity.

There is, however, a problem with this favourable
interpretation of the impeachment, a problem that could well end up putting her
successor, Vice-President Michel Temer, into serious trouble too. For the time
being, he has stepped in as Interim President, until Mrs Rousseff’s trial has
been completed, but few expect her ever to return to office.

The problem is that Brazil’s corruption scandal is
affecting the whole of the mainstream political classes – including Mr Temer’s
Brazilian Democratic Movement party, which was in coalition with Mrs Rousseff’s
Worker’s Party. The Petrobras investigation, which is known as “Operation Car
Wash” brings immediately to mind Italy’s Tangentopoli or Mani Pulite
investigations a quarter century ago.

Like Mani Pulite, Brazil’s Car Wash is discrediting
all of Brazilian politics, is further diminishing business and consumer
confidence in an economy that is now in its fourth year of recession, and risks
providing incentives either for worsening political conflict, or for the
arrival on the political scene of new extremes, hoping to exploit a political
vacuum, or else, rather as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia sought to do in
1994, to protect existing business and political interests from investigation.

On the face of it, Mr Temer’s ideas, which are for
liberalisation and smaller government, could be just what Brazil needs. But his
chances of getting his ideas accepted by parliament are low. Even though the
impeachment of Mrs Rousseff has commanded wide support, both in parliament and
among the public, a large majority appears to believe that Mr Temer’s
government will essentially be illegitimate.

The best course for Brazil, and for the liberalising
ideas Mr Temer favours, would be for the country to hold a new presidential
election, once Mrs Rousseff’s impeachment trial has been completed. That would
clear some of the political air, would confirm the resilience of the country’s
political institutions, and would bring to power a government whose legitimacy
could not be questioned. The alternative is a long political battle, with the
prosecutors caught in the middle, with the country paralysed, and with ordinary
Brazilians the chief victims.