from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

Do Brazil’s Street Protests Spell the End for Rousseff?

March 17, 2016

Dilma Rousseff, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Lava Jato, Marcelo Odebrecht, protests, Workers’ Party, Delcídio Amaral, Aloizi...Neves, Renan Calheiros, legitimacy, golpismo, PSDB, Sérgio Moro, Eduardo Cunha, resignation, impeachment, Ricardo Lewandowski
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Brazil’s drama has escalated at breakneck speed. On March 4, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was detained for questioning. On March 8, construction magnate Marcelo Odebrecht was sentenced to nineteen years in prison for his role in the Lava Jato scandal. On March 9, state prosecutors in São Paulo filed a motion for Lula’s arrest, and on March 13, an estimated three million Brazilians hit the streets in the largest anti-government protests of recent years. On March 15, the plea bargain signed by Workers’ Party (PT) senator Delcídio Amaral was approved by the country’s high court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF), revealing accusations against President Rousseff’s confidante and minister Aloizio Mercadante, against erstwhile government allies Vice President Michel Temer and Senate President Renan Calheiros, against opposition leader Aécio Neves, and even against Rousseff herself, who is alleged to have pushed judges to tamper with the ongoing investigation. Yesterday, March 16, spontaneous protests broke out in several cities after a wiretap was released of Lula and Rousseff discussing his appointment as presidential chief of staff, with protesters interpreting the conversation as obstruction of justice and an effort to ensure Lula special standing in a high court that has long been deferential to politicians (ministers, including the chief of staff, can only be tried in the STF).

The speed with which the crisis has developed is reminiscent of another chaotic March, more than a half century ago, which culminated in the military coup of March 31, 1964. Today’s military is thankfully content to remain in its barracks, but although the democratic regime seems secure, the Rousseff administration is in deep trouble. A variety of well-informed observers are predicting Rousseff will be unseated. The arrest of Rousseff’s campaign manager, the charges against Lula, the turning of Senator Amaral, the likelihood of further explosive plea bargains within the next month, and the weakening of support from the PT rank and file all bode poorly for Rousseff. Stock markets have risen and the Brazilian real has strengthened, perhaps unreasonably, on the belief that any new government will be an improvement on the Rousseff administration’s disastrous economic record.

But although the government is teetering, Rousseff’s removal is far from a done deal. The odds are still too close to call: a single revelation from the Lava Jato investigation could tip the balance at a moment’s notice. But the obstacles to removing Rousseff are significant enough to suggest that the crisis may still play out for some time, despite the tumult of the past few weeks:

Legitimacy: As I noted last week, a central concern driving the calculations around Rousseff’s fate is “legitimacy.” Impeachment is more of a political process than a legal one, and the opposition is both divided and uncertain about how to proceed. The Workers’ Party has skillfully pushed a narrative about the conservatism of the media and the coup-mongering (golpismo) of the opposition parties (including Neves’ PSDB and the DEM, with its historical ties to the authoritarian regime). This narrative gives the opposition pause, and this hesitation has only been exacerbated by the ham-handed prosecutorial overreach by São Paulo state prosecutors last week, which allowed Lula to pose as the victim of a targeted onslaught, and led some Brazilians to question the legitimacy of the ongoing (and multiple) prosecutions of wrongdoing under the PT. Yesterday’s decision by Judge Sérgio Moro, presiding over the Lava Jato case, has generated controversy about potential judicial bias: the wiretap had been lifted by Moro several hours before the taped call, and although the conversation was suspect, it also suggested that the Lava Jato case has taken a more political turn. Meanwhile, none of the opposition has been particularly brave about leading the anti-Rousseff charge, except for Chamber President Eduardo Cunha, who is himself neck-deep in scandal and therefore not the best advocate for a procedurally legitimate impeachment.

Street protests and the PMDB: Sunday’s protests sought to pressure Congress. In a secret vote on the impeachment process in December, Rousseff was able to garner 199 votes, only 28 more than she needs to block impeachment. The calculation is that the government has a hardcore bloc of about 125 supporters who are unlikely to switch sides, but the remainder are fair-weather friends, who may melt away if public disapproval is vehement enough.

The PMDB is central to this calculus. Ominously, it has put off a decision about whether to support the government until April. But the protests may have less of an impact on changing the PMDB’s posture than many think. The Sunday protests remained a largely upper middle class phenomenon, heavily concentrated in the wealthy southern states, whose PMDB politicians were already largely in the pro-impeachment camp. Protesters reacted angrily to the presence of opposition politicians at Sunday’s march in São Paulo, forcing a hasty retreat by Aécio Neves and others, and suggesting that riding the political wave of impeachment may be fraught with peril. The events of recent weeks have exacerbated fissures within the PMDB: the Lava Jato investigation seems to be getting closer to many PMDB heavyweights, including Vice President Temer, which affects their ability to concentrate on organizing the party; and the PMDB is a fractious party of mutually jealous rivals, many of whom can be peeled away by a government willing to dispense goodies, such as the increasingly pressing renegotiation of state debts. This susceptibility to government pressure may be even more marked in the Senate, where governors’ concerns carry even greater weight, and may become more pronounced in coming months, now that Rousseff has hired a politically-savvy chief of staff. It is no coincidence that one of Lula’s first announced objectives is to begin a discussion of state debts.

The path of removal: Rousseff has ruled out resignation, which leaves only two democratic avenues for removal. Impeachment is the most obvious, in part because it would be the most legitimate. Cunha intends to begin selection of the impeachment committee today. But a second path would be for the electoral court (TSE) to void the 2014 election, on the basis of campaign finance violations. Although Gilmar Mendes will soon become the president of the TSE, and he is not known for his love of the PT, TSE removal of the president would be an institutional innovation by a historically timid body. The TSE has traditionally turned a blind eye to almost all campaign finance violations, and over the past thirty years, it has removed only a handful of lower-level politicians for electoral wrongdoing. Furthermore, any TSE decision would likely be appealed up to the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF), which would not necessarily agree with the TSE, and in any case, would string out the decision.

The day after: Politicians deciding whether to support impeachment are also thinking about the day after. Already, there are allegations pending against every single politician in the line of presidential succession: Vice President Michel Temer, Chamber President Eduardo Cunha, and Senate President Renan Calheiros. Delcídio Amaral’s testimony even raises a cloud over the fourth in line, STF President Ricardo Lewandowski, as well Rousseff’s rival in the 2014 race, opposition leader Senator Aécio Neves. If the selection of a new president were thrown to the Congress—which it would be unless Temer survived or Rousseff and Temer were removed before the end of 2016—there are very few politicians who are both unsullied by allegations and simultaneously capable of pulling together the governing coalition needed to approve any meaningful reform that might jumpstart the moribund economy.

Timing: The impeachment and Senate trial of Fernando Collor took seven months from start to finish. Next month, sitting politicians in both the Rousseff cabinet and the Congress will have to step down if they wish to run in October’s municipal elections. This is likely to lead to considerable turnover, muddying the impeachment calculus, and perhaps ensuring that any final decision comes in 2017, with only two years left in the Rousseff administration. Will it be worth the effort, especially if the justification for impeachment is weak, and the likelihood that the new government could turn things around is remote? Will it be worth the effort to join an impeachment drive driven forward by an unsavory Congress, only to replace Rousseff with an equally scandal-ridden Temer or Cunha administration?

Justification: Impeachment is all about politics, and although the Lava Jato investigation seems to be marching inexorably toward the upper rungs of the political establishment, there is as yet no smoking gun against Rousseff that would tip the scales. There is evidence of massive campaign violations, confirmation of the kickbacks that helped convict Odebrecht, and allegations of government meddling in the courts. Yesterday’s wiretapped conversation with Lula also puts Rousseff in an unpalatable position, but the presidential palace has claimed that there was good justification for the conversation. Because of the legitimacy concerns noted above, none of these, as yet, seems sufficient to generate the momentum needed in the final push for impeachment, especially in the context of a rudderless, divided, and increasingly discredited opposition.