from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

Brazil’s Impending Hangover

President Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer, impeachment, Workers' Party, economic mismanagement, political turmoil, hangover, Rena...ribunal, Oscar Vilhena Vieira, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, Eduardo Cunha, Lava Jato, Car Wash investigation, golpismo

April 14, 2016

President Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer, impeachment, Workers' Party, economic mismanagement, political turmoil, hangover, Rena...ribunal, Oscar Vilhena Vieira, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, Eduardo Cunha, Lava Jato, Car Wash investigation, golpismo
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After months of suspense, President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment looks set to proceed in a floor vote in the Chamber of Deputies on Sunday, April 17. At present, impeachment seems more likely than not: Vice President Michel Temer and his allies have overcome many of the political hurdles to impeachment by skillfully creating a bandwagon effect among legislators, in part by arguing that there is little point in continued support for the outgoing Rousseff and that now is the time to make sweet deals with the incoming Temer administration. This week’s desertions mean that of the seven largest parties in Congress, only one (the PT) still supports the president, while five are in opposition (PMDB, PSDB, PP, PSB, and DEM) and one is still officially undecided (PR).

Like a long night of heavy drinking, Sunday’s impeachment vote may feel at the time like a fitting way to put an end to the Rousseff years of economic mismanagement and political turmoil. Many Brazilians may be out demonstrating on Sunday, and celebrating (or drowning their sorrows) late into the evening. But Monday morning will bring a massive hangover, and like the aftermath of many a hard night, the morning after will bring as many new puzzles as it resolves:

  1. The Senate: The immediate question is whether the Senate will break the momentum set in motion in the Chamber of Deputies. Senate President Renan Calheiros has pledged support to Rousseff, but simultaneously assured the pro-impeachment forces that he will not get in the way of a Senate trial. Can the hapless Rousseff administration successfully build a more effective defense in the Senate, working with allies like this? They will have little time to mount a defense, as the Senate could vote within fifteen days on whether or not to proceed to trial. If a simple majority agree to proceed, Rousseff would be suspended from office for 180 days, handing her presidential powers of appointment and budgetary allocation over to Temer. Once that happens, it is hard to see how Rousseff holds together her evanescent coalition or builds up a new base of support, no matter how strong her defense in the Senate trial.

  1. The Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF): Will the high court, the STF, be asked to intervene? Already, the government is reported to be considering filing suit against procedural irregularities in the impeachment process before Sunday’s vote, and one such motion has been rejected. One of Brazil’s leading constitutional scholars, Oscar Vilhena Vieira, noted that there are a variety of ways in which the STF might intervene even after a vote has taken place. The high court is on a much slower timetable than politicians, and although temporary injunctions could immediately delay the impeachment process, there is also the possibility that judicial uncertainty could linger for some time.

  1. Temer: The vice president has played a skillful game, subverting the administration from within in subtle and deeply damaging ways. On Monday, a fourteen-minute long recording was released of Temer speaking to his allies as though impeachment had already occurred. The vice president claimed it was an accidental release, but the recording was a potent signal to wavering deputies that Temer was fully committed to impeachment. Yet Temer himself is hardly guaranteed a peaceful stay in the presidential office: allegations from plea bargaining witnesses have already tarred him with accusations of malfeasance; he has only 16 percent support in a recent poll; and the electoral court (TSE) could still move to remove him for campaign finance violations. If impeachment clears the Senate, Temer will only have two years to govern, but it may be that he spends much of this time under a shadow, not least because his bedfellows in the PMDB—including Eduardo Cunha and Renan Calheiros—are even more deeply implicated in corruption investigations. “A pox on all their houses” seems to be the deepening reply from the streets, and it will require all of Temer’s considerable political talents to overcome his low credibility and questionable legitimacy.

  1. Lava Jato: The “Car Wash” investigation is suddenly looking vulnerable, amid questions of whether a PMDB administration might undermine prosecutors. The excesses committed in March by prosecutors and the judge at the center of the case led many to believe that the Lava Jato investigation was closely allied to the pro-impeachment forces. But the supreme irony is that the Temer coalition is populated by a variety of actors—not least Cunha and Calheiros—who would gain enormously if the investigation ended up, as Brazilians say, “in pizza,” going nowhere. There are a variety of ways in which the investigation could be undermined by meddling from the executive branch, and there are rumors of a deal whereby Cunha would resign as president of the Chamber of Deputies in a bid to save him from expulsion from Congress and preserve his privileged standing in the high court.

  1. The new government: Assuming Rousseff is impeached on Sunday, what kind of mandate will the new government have, and what vision will an interim (and then, presumably, permanent) President Temer seek to implement? Will Temer seek a long-term legacy as a peacemaking statesman, undertaking painful reforms that might set the country on a new path, or will he seek quick victories that might lead to his election in 2018? Temer has claimed the former, but even if this is the case, the new government will need to overcome great polarization, an angry and mobilized opposition, and an abysmal economic situation, all while meeting the demands placed on it by the broad coalition that seated Temer in the Palácio do Planalto in the first place. The impeachment process—founded on historically unprecedented punishment of fiscal maneuvers that sixteen state governors and Temer himself are also accused of—will give credence to Rousseff supporters’ charges of golpismo, placing a dark cloud over the caretaker government. Many on the Left will be troubled and possibly radicalized by the one-sided nature of the outcome, which has left in place their deeply corrupt one-time allies in the PMDB and PP. The new president will need to deal with pressing fiscal challenges, all while meeting his promises that he would renegotiate state debts, and reward supporters with new roles in the already overstretched administration.

In Brazil’s crazy political moment, a much less likely but not entirely implausible scenario is that Rousseff survives Sunday’s vote, perhaps by convincing enough wavering legislators to simply absent themselves from Congress, if they can’t stomach voting in her favor. In that case, there will still be a hangover, but of a different sort, like the difference between drinking cachaça instead of rum. This hangover will include a defenestrated and visibly exhausted president, a dysfunctional coalition, the continued threat of removal via a new impeachment request or an electoral court conviction, and continued macroeconomic malaise.

Either way, Monday morning’s hangover is going to be painful.

More on:

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