The Unbearable Lightness of Dilma’s Impeachment

˙ Voces

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São Paulo.- The legislative session of the lower house that formally opened the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff had everything: pushing, shoving, howling, implausible dedications, and confetti when the key 342nd vote for impeachment was cast. The only thing missing was a sense of the gravity of the occasion. It was, in my experience, also missing in the streets. The anti-Dilma crowd on Avenida Paulista wasn’t so much an enraged mass as a smiling lot enjoying a bright Sunday afternoon among a sea of verde-amarelhas jerseys, street food, and inflatable Lula dolls dressed in black-and-white prisoners’ stripes. On the television in my hotel, only one channel broadcast the vote. The rest followed football games, teary soap operas, and a series of wild-eyed evangelical preachers promising the end of all suffering. The next morning, as far as I could see, no one on the street was talking about the impeachment. A budding insurrection this was not.

This impeachment process appears defined by a sense of levity. In actual fact, very few seemed to be interested. Voting was the continuation of a convoluted dispute between politicians, progressively more difficult for everyday people—most far more worried about the ongoing economic tailspin—to follow. The lamentable spectacle was received with a shrug, as the confirmation of the public’s general distaste for their representatives. According to the Latinobarómetro poll, in 2015 69% of Brazilians described Congress’ performance as “poor” or “very poor,” one of the highest rates in Latin America.

Why should it be otherwise? It’s clear that the real motives behind this impeachment have little to do with the invoked charges. That Dilma manipulated public accounts matters very little to most political actors. Such practices are endemic at all levels of government in Brazil. The cloud of hypocrisy that floats over this process is unsettling even by the low standards of Latin American politics. Voting was presided over by Eduardo Cunha, a tropical incarnation of Frank Underwood—the villainous antihero from House of Cards—himself accused of stashing millions of dollars in bribes in Swiss accounts. More than half of all members of Congress are under investigation for various crimes, many of them linked to the colossal Petrobras embezzlement scheme that potentially amounts to $5 billion dollars in stolen funds. Impeachment is, above all, an attempt to put a lid over this investigation. If impunity demands sacrificing an unpopular and incompetent president, albeit legitimately elected, so be it.

In this prevailing levity and indifference lies recognition that, in reality, no changes—neither tragic nor positive—will derive from Dilma’s dismissal. As disagreeable as we may find this process, it is not a coup d’etat, as many hyperventilating voices have claimed. The impeachment trial is a constitutional process, endorsed by the Supreme Court, grounds for which in the case of Brazil are open to broad interpretation. The mendacity of the process does not make it unconstitutional. There is no immediate risk of democratic collapse or violence in the streets. As former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso put it the day after the vote, even in a moment as difficult as this for Brazil no one is wondering what the military will do – people are asking what the judges will do. Dilma herself, in her first statement after the vote in the lower house, clearly laid out the terms by which this dispute will be settled: she simply said that she would fight against her dismissal in the Senate chambers.

The underlying risks are more subtle. The most important is the continued loss of credibility on the part of a political system that, in many ways, has already been thoroughly rejected by the public. Not a single political figure in Brazil comes out of this episode looking good. Only 1.8% of Brazilian voters say they are very satisfied with their democracy, the lowest figure in the region. From there, the emergence of redeemers from outside the political parties, in the style of Chávez or Correa, is not an unthinkable leap. To this we have to add the danger of adopting a frivolous view towards impeachment processes, a temptation that may easily spread—as bad practices always do—throughout Latin America. After all, there are very few presidents in the region that can count on a stable legislative majority. Divided government is the norm. We should be careful: if we begin to pursue parliamentary government—the only way to describe the use of censure votes to change governments—we should do so seriously, with full parliamentary sovereignty. So long as we have presidential systems, elected presidents are as representative of the popular will as Congress is and their dismissal, except in extreme cases, is a profound blow to democracy.

Dilma’s impeachment will solve nothing. It will not magically bestow legitimacy on her successor. Nor will it begin to fix a broken party system whose fragmentation is a standing invitation for corruption. An executive that has to negotiate with more than two dozen parties in Congress has few ways to construct a majority. One of those—with limited costs to the political system in the short run, but disastrous in the long run—passes through the torturous Mensalão and Petrolão schemes. Brazil’s political and economic problems are unlikely to be resolved before the next election and, above all, before the beneficiaries of the current system become convinced that profound political reform is the only way to stem the alarming deterioration of Brazilian democracy.

Will this happen? I doubt it. Everything I have seen suggests that Brazilian politicians will continue to fight over the crumbs of a broken system even at the risk of losing the cake of democracy for which many of them fought, some literally. This, in essence, is levity. And it begets storms.