Time Again for “Diretas Já”

˙ Voces

Badly battered by prolonged economic distress, pervasive corruption, and deepening political turbulence, Brazilians have plunged head-long into an effort to impeach their president and remake their government. Although legally sanctioned by Brazil’s constitution and overseen by judicial authorities, the ousting of a freely and fairly elected leader is momentous decision. And it is being taken without regard for its consequences or much sense of what might come next. It is a giant roll of the dice.

To be sure, Brazilians overwhelmingly—upwards of 60 percent according to several polls—support the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff despite their distaste for her even more unpopular Vice-President Michel Temer, a flawed and corrupted politician.  Surveys report that less than 25 percent of Brazilians want Rousseff, who was narrowly re-elected just 18 months ago, to remain in office, but less than ten percent favor a transition to Temer.  The vice-president, moreover, confronts an impeachment process of his own (although it is unlikely to succeed), and he could, along with Rousseff, be deposed by the Federal Electoral Tribunal, which is now investigating charges that their joint campaign was illegally financed.  Worse still, if both Rousseff and Temer are unseated, House Speaker Eduardo Cunha would be next in the line of succession, even though he has already been incriminated in Brazil’s massive Petrobras scandal. And following him is Senate leader Renan Calheiros, who is also under investigation in the scandal. Temer, Cunha, and Calheiros are all top officials in the PMDB party, long a major beneficiary of political corruption.

Unsurprisingly, none of these men command much stature or credibility today among the Brazilian public. None of them has the credentials or support needed to govern Brazil.  To be sure, the Rousseff’s impeachment may create a fresh dynamic, and the new president could enjoy a honeymoon period, perhaps sufficient to allow for a serious assault on Brazil’s financial problems and economic mismanagement. But the new Brazilian leader would confront the same congressional and public resistance that blocked President Rousseff’s economic agenda—and it is hard to imagine Temer or either of his party colleagues risking their limited political capital to advance painful adjustment policies and tax hikes. Another widely voiced concern is that, to protect itself and its allies, a new government in Brasilia could attempt to put a damper on the ongoing corruption investigations and trials. Managing economic reform and sustaining the battle against corruption are Brazil’s main challenges today. The MDB Party and its leaders have no record of caring much about either.

The hard fact is that the cutting short of President Rousseff’s term in office will not, itself, produce a path for Brazil’s recovery from its economic and governance crises. The impeachment comes with the considerable risk of bringing another unpopular and tarnished government to power—one that could perform just as badly as, or worse than, its predecessor. In addition, the three to six month Senate trial of the Brazilian president, which could begin in May and continue through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, will be a period of tension and uncertainty. Until the Senate reaches its decision on the Rousseff impeachment, Temer will serve as interim president with a newly appointed cabinet. Crucial decisions will almost surely become entangled with continuing clashes over Rousseff’s removal from office; many will have to be postponed.

The hard fact is that the cutting short of President Rousseff’s term in office will not, itself, produce a path for Brazil’s recovery from its economic and governance crises.

The weakness of the formal charges levied against Rousseff is another factor contributing to the contentious, divisive debate over impeachment.  The President has not been accused of corruption or any other criminal activity. Rather she is faulted for spurious financial transactions to balance Brazil’s fiscal accounts, a practice that has a considerable history in Brazil and is commonplace elsewhere in Latin American. Although judged to be sufficient by the Supreme Court, the validity of the charges have been widely questioned, in Brazil and elsewhere, and have set the stage for Rousseff and her supporters to claim that the proceedings themselves are unconstitutional. They assert that her removal would be a flagrant coup d’état, even though it has followed constitutional requirements and has proceeded under judicial supervision. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, once Brazil’s most revered political leader ever, has threatened to launch street protests throughout the nation to protect Rousseff’s presidency.

Still, keeping Rousseff in office until 2019 is hardly a solution to Brazil’s troubles either. With approval ratings hovering around ten percent and an economy in deep recession, she has neither the credibility nor support needed to govern. There is virtually no chance now of assembling a government of national unity. The time for that has come and gone.  Rousseff’s own Workers’ Party has consistently opposed her economic reform agenda designed to restart growth in Brazil. A substantial majority of the Brazilian population, rich and poor, conservative and progressive, urban and rural, North and South, want a weakened and disliked Rousseff replaced—although clearly not by Vice-President Temer, who is even more unpopular. By a wide margin, most Brazilians want a new round of elections to choose president, even though that will require a constitutional amendment (unless Brazil’s electoral tribunal declares Rousseff’s and Temer’s 2014 election invalid).  A new election may be the only way to convey legitimacy on Brazil’s next government.

Some 32 years ago, millions Brazilians were on the streets demanding “Diretas Já,” that is, “direct elections now”, to choose their first civilian president after two decades of military rule. They had to settle, instead, for a vote in Congress.  That should not happen again. While there is no guarantee that it will produce a better government, Brazilians should have their chance for Diretas Já.