The Buzz

Political Fault Lines in Post-Rousseff Brazil

After nearly nine months, Brazil’s impeachment drama is over.

The process ended on a curiously subdued note: the Senate’s questioning of Dilma Rousseff on Monday was a staid affair, and Tuesday’s speeches were calculatedly calm and measured. By the time the Senate began to vote yesterday, Rousseff’s removal was a foregone conclusion. But the civilized, even boring, proceedings obscured an important objective of this week’s debates: shaping the historical narrative that will guide each side’s supporters over Michel Temer administration’s next twenty-eight months in office.

On the Senate floor, Rousseff and her defenders stuck tenaciously and defiantly to script: the fiscal pretext for impeachment was weak and no previous president had been held responsible for the same errors; the economic crisis was not her doing but the result of international circumstances she could not control; and she herself never personally benefitted from the corruption that took place during her presidency. Rousseff was impressive, showing all of the qualities that led President Lula to choose her as his successor: attention to detail, intense message discipline, and an unwillingness to cede any ground. Most important to the Workers’ Party (PT) narrative, she returned over and over to the theme that when they lost at the polls in 2014, “sectors of the economic and political elite” began conspiring against her. By her account, the impeachment battle had its origins in Rousseff’s principled refusal to bargain with the former Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha, who is deeply enmeshed in his own bribery scandal but has yet to be removed by Congress. Rousseff was supported from the wings by twenty former ministers, her predecessor and mentor Lula, a number of PT bigwigs, and the starpower of crooner Chico Buarque.

The opposition, meanwhile, hammered home the depth of the economic, political, and moral crises Brazil faces. They honed in on the narrow text of the impeachment petition—premised on arcane minutia about unauthorized spending and improper loans to the government by state banks—but also sought to show that the transgressions for which she could have been impeached were much broader. They repeatedly reminded Rousseff of the bait-and-switch between the lofty promises made during her 2014 campaign and the austere policies that were actually implemented during her second term, made grand statements about the usurpation of legislative functions by her administration, and noted that almost all of the costs of her fiscal maneuvers were borne by taxpayers. They repeated the now well-trod line that if Rousseff was not complacent with corruption she must be incompetent, and noted that while Rousseff was not personally enriched by corruption, her presidential campaign was financed by ill-gotten means. Most important to their long-time narrative about the legitimacy of impeachment, they noted that all three branches of government were represented at the Senate trial, and that by her very presence, Rousseff was acknowledging the legitimacy of the impeachment process. What sort of golpe is this, they asked, in which the defendant has the right to self-defense? They were supported from the wings by a handful of youthful leaders from the street protest movement.

Whatever the arguments, what best explains the impeachment vote is exhaustion. It has been a turbulent three years since the first street protests erupted in July 2013, and many Brazilians simply want the political crisis to go away. In a poll published by Istoé magazine over the weekend, nearly two-thirds of Brazilians said that if they were senators, they would vote to see Rousseff go. That doesn’t mean that Temer is beloved: when asked who should govern Brazil, more than a third (35 percent) of those polled spontaneously responded that they would choose neither Temer nor Dilma. There is also a solid core of opposition, with 30 percent opining against Dilma’s impeachment. But by and large, Dilma had lost much of the public support she had when elected two years ago, and the Petrobras scandal appears to have greatly diminished her mentor Lula, whose ratings continue to decline as police and prosecutors close in on his family’s questionable dealings.

What comes next for Brazil? This blog has repeatedly noted the importance of legitimacy to Brazil’s impeachment process. The PT narrative of golpismo by neoliberal forces on the right was artfully deployed by Rousseff and is likely to be a core message of the PT in coming years. This drumbeat will keep Temer and his coalition on the defensive, while turning attention away from the Rousseff administration’s own failures and the PT’s involvement in the corruption scandal.