Brazil: Giant on a precipice’

18.05.16 Publication:

To 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.