Brazil’s Political Crisis: From ‘House of Lies’ to ‘House of Cards’

President Dilma Rousseff conducts an interview with Roda Vida. Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho/Dilma Roussef/Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0


On April 17, 2016, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies voted to start impeachment procedures against President Dilma Rousseff. The impeachment vote comfortably passed the two-thirds majority needed, and will now move to the Senate where a simple majority will decide whether to launch an impeachment trial. Whatever the ultimate decision, however, Brazil’s problems will not be fixed by simply removing the president.

The formal reason behind impeaching President Rousseff is allegations that she manipulated the government’s budget in 2014. The president denies any wrongdoing and claims that the move to oust her is driven by an opposition unable to accept their defeat in 2014. Yet, the impeachment process is also aimed at the mismanagement of the economy under her administration, as well as the overall corruption within Rousseff’s Workers Party (PT). The corruption allegations have been uncovered over the past two years through the Lava Jato, or Car Wash, investigation, which discovered that the state-owned oil company Petrobras was conspiring with construction companies to inflate the value of contracts, and the extra money was channeled into maintaining the PT’s governing coalition in Congress.

A parliamentary commission in 2015 cleared Rousseff of any wronging regarding Lava Jato, all the while those driving the impeachment procedures are themselves accused of being involved in the Petrobras scheme. Among them is Eduardo Cunha, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, who decided in mid-2015 to begin the impeachment process as prosecutors moved to investigate his involvement in the Petrobras scandal. Cunha’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the largest political party in Congress (and until recently, part of Rousseff’s governing coalition), has been accused of being as tangled in Lava Jato as Rousseff’s PT. Similarly, other members of the opposition, including the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and its main leader Aécio Neves, Rousseff’s presidential opponent in 2014, are also accused of taking part in Lava Jato. In Brazil, the entire political class has in one way or another been tied the Petrobras scheme.

Protesters go to the National Congress Palace to denounce corruption and demand the departure of President Dilma Rousseff. Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias / CC BY 2.0

Protesters go to the National Congress Palace to denounce corruption and demand the departure of President Dilma Rousseff. Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias / CC BY 2.0

Rousseff has vowed to fight impeachment, and has accused her opponents of launching a putsch against Brazilian democracy. The rhetoric from Planalto, the presidential palace, has heated up in recent weeks, and Rousseff has said to her aides that she will not make the same mistake as João Goulart, the left wing Brazilian president that refused to fight the 1964 military coup.

If the Senate moves on May 18 to launch the impeachment trial (which seems likely), Rousseff will be suspended and her Vice President, Michel Temer, a member of the PMDB, will become acting president. Rousseff will then have 180 days to defend herself in the Senate trial, and if two thirds of 81 members of the upper house find Rousseff guilty, she will be removed from office and Temer assumes the presidency until 2018, when presidential elections are scheduled. Temer, like his party, however, is also accused of being a participant in the scandal.

Similarly, a Temer presidency will face the same problem as Rousseff’s, as the Lava Jato investigations will continue to affect Brazil’s political atmosphere, while low commodity prices and bottlenecks will remain, impacting the economy. Temer would also have a legitimacy problem as a recent poll showed only 16% of Brazilians support a Temer presidency. Likewise, he would need to form a government from multiple parties in Congress, which seems likely to include quid pro quo deals similar to those that created the Petrobras scheme in the first place given there are around 30 parties represented in Congress. Furthermore, Temer himself is not only accused of participating in the scheme, but could face impeachment for the same crimes that Rousseff is being accused of. Yet despite all these possible obstacles, a Temer presidency could, counterintuitively, lead to a return of governability and implementation of much needed economic reforms, as shown by the 1992 presidency of Itamar Franco, who took over from former president Fernando Collor after the latter resigned while an impeachment trial against him was underway.

Making the political atmosphere grimmer, in the very unlikely scenario that Temer is removed, Eduardo Cunha, the embattled Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, is next in the presidential succession. Not to be outdone, the third in line for the presidency, Renan Calheiros, president of the Senate and a PMDB member, is also accused of receiving bribes from the Petrobras scheme. Brazil is in fact beginning to resemble very much Netflix’s House of Cards.

On the other hand, if Rousseff were able to fight off impeachment in the Senate and be reinstated, governing Brazil would be near impossible. Already a lame duck president, Rousseff would have an even harder time passing any legislation through an opposition-controlled Congress, and would have dissidents within her own administration through the vice president’s office, which would remain in Temer’s hands.

There have also been discussions of scheduling presidential elections this October to end the political crisis. Following Sunday’s vote in the lower house, news reports hinted that a call for early elections would be the PT’s likely response, including the idea of ending Rousseff’s government this year, which together with her first term would put her administration at its 6th year, and have the next president serve six years without reelection, a scheme similar to Mexico’s sexenio. However, Rousseff refuted the idea of new elections on Monday, only to have a group of Senators, present a proposal for new presidential elections later this year. Despite the president’s refusal, new elections seem to be the best solution to the political paralysis given the high unpopularity of Rousseff, Temer, Cunha, Calheiros, and the rest of the political class in Brasília.

This political saga will continue to affect Brazil in the near future. With the economy expected to remain in recession in 2017, political polarization will only continue to grow. Meanwhile, with the Rio Olympics closing in, the country will unfortunately enter the international stage highly polarized. Finding common ground to solve Brazil’s problems remains the key step in moving forward for whoever is president. Yet, the whole scene is nothing new to a country used to political soap opera.

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Luis Ferreira Alvarez is an Analyst specializing in Latin America energy policy, with research and analytical experience on trade, as well as social and security policies in the Western Hemisphere. Luis worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, non-partisan policy think tank. He also worked for the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy think tank that focuses on US-Latin American relations. Luis holds a Masters of Public Administration from Cornell University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

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