A Brazilian Dilemma: To Impeach or Not to Impeach?

˙ Voces

Within the next month or so, the Brazilian Congress is likely to vote on whether to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and cut short her presidency, a course now supported by a huge majority of the country’s population. The ousting of President Rousseff may well be in the best interests of Brazil. New leadership may be needed to restore public confidence in government and revive the country’s moribund economy. But without a reasonably clear picture of what would follow, it would be reckless to take the momentous step of removing the president. 

Without a measure of consensus on where the country should be headed and what its priorities should be, the president’s ouster, no matter how badly she has performed, could end up leaving Brazil worse off. The future of Brazil would best served by a broad agreement among the country’s political leaders on the framework for addressing the nation’s toughest problems, economic recession and inflation, the Petrobras corruption scheme, and the deep-seat distrust of government politicians that pervades Brazil. At minimum, however, it is crucial that, prior to Rousseff’s departure, there is clarity on how a new president will be chosen, particularly given uncertainties in the constitutionally mandated line of succession.

During Rousseff’s five years in power, Brazil’s fortunes have plummeted. Its economy has shrunk, its worst corruption scandal ever has come to light, its once flourishing international stature has faded, and the country remains on a downhill course.

It is not difficult to list the reasons why so many Brazilians want Rousseff out of office. During her five years in power, Brazil’s fortunes have plummeted. Its economy has shrunk, its worst corruption scandal ever has come to light, its once flourishing international stature has faded, and the country remains on a downhill course. How much blame she bears for these reversals can be disputed, but for most Brazilians, Rousseff is no longer a credible leader, although she was re-elected for a second term less than a year ago.

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The ousting of President Rousseff may well be in the best interests of Brazil. New leadership may be needed to restore public confidence in government and revive the country’s moribund economy.

In her defense, Rousseff, despite past errors, has sought to pursue a pragmatic, nonpartisan effort to address Brazil’s multiple and interconnected problems. It is hard to fault her efforts to deal with Brazil’s corruption scandal, for example. The prosecutors and investigators have had the full latitude and authority to pursue criminal activity at the highest level of the government. And Rousseff just recently reappointed the lead judge and prosecutor in the Petrobras affair, both of whom are widely recognized in Brazil for their competence and hard-nosed determination to identify and punish those responsible.

She has also assembled a first class team of economic advisors, whose initial proposals were applauded by the country’s business and banking communities, most professional economists, and international financial institutions as the right medicine to repair the country’s broken economy. Yet her government’s initiatives have consistently been watered down or rejected by the fractious Brazilian legislature. And she has not been able to marshal much public support for her economic program. Many view her as lacking the leadership and political skills to navigate Brazil’s highly charged environment.

If Rousseff resigned or were forced from office, her vice president for the past five years, Michel Temer would be next in line to replace her. Although by no means a charismatic political leader of national stature, Temer would bring some strengths to the presidency. He is an experienced politician, who has served in top legislative and party positions. For several years, he was the leader of the lower house, and before that, the president of the centrist PMDB, Brazil’s largest party. His political party, which has been part of every ruling coalition since democracy returned to Brazil in 1985, may be his biggest asset, but it is also a great weakness.  Lacking any hard ideological convictions, the party could provide a base for building more consensual politics in Brazil. On the other hand, the party itself is divided on crucial issues, including the president’s impeachment. Like Rousseff’s Worker’s Party, many in the PMDB leadership have been implicated in the bribery scandals of the past decade.

Moreover, the vice-president might also be subject to impeachment. One of the most discussed of the impeachable charges that could be raised against Rousseff is that her campaign last year was partly financed by illegal donations. If that charge were to stick, Temer, who ran on the same ballot as Rousseff, could also be forced from office. Should that be the case, next in queue would be the current leader of the house, a member of Temer’s party, but he has already been formally accused of receiving bribes, would almost certainly be considered an unacceptable as a presidential candidate. The leader of the Senate would follow, but he is now is under investigation for corruption. Brazil’s order of succession presents an array of problems should Rousseff leave office.

Today it is hard to name any prospective contenders in Brazil who command the necessary stature and credibility to overcome the profound cleavages in the Brazilian electorate. 

There are many in Brazil who favor new elections, which could signal a fresh start for a country that has been badly battered in the past few years. In addition, an open election process might just produce a consensus candidate, who would present a practical program for pursuing economic recovery and addressing other pressing problems. However, that is more of a hope than a realistic expectation. Today it is hard to name any prospective contenders in Brazil who command the necessary stature and credibility to overcome the profound cleavages in the Brazilian electorate.  The election last year, which Rousseff won, was bitterly fought and left the country deeply divided. An election now could well plunge the country into a rancorous partisan battle, just at a time when the critical task is to find common ground.

The most promising path to resolving current crisis is probably the same way Brazil has managed to surmount past crises—that is by the country’s leadership, public and private, putting aside, for a period, their competing regional interests, partisan differences, and political rivalries, and developing a broad agreement or framework for dealing with the nation’s multiple economic and social challenges. That might include finding an appropriate means to end the Rousseff presidency—but if that is the only thing that can be agreed upon, Brazil’s agony  could be prolonged for  some time.