from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

Will 2018 Bring a Mandate for Change in Brazil?

Brazil's new President Michel Temer attends the presidential inauguration ceremony after Brazil's Senate removed President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia, Brazil, August 31, 2016. Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

May 12, 2017

Brazil's new President Michel Temer attends the presidential inauguration ceremony after Brazil's Senate removed President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia, Brazil, August 31, 2016. Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
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It has been a tough month in Brasilia. The release of the list of 98 senior politicians implicated in the Lava Jato investigation confirmed that corruption runs broad and deep across the political landscape: 17 parties and 63 sitting legislators are mentioned, and President Michel Temer’s cabinet and the congressional leadership are chock-a-block with alleged wrongdoers. Temer himself has emerged in the revelations, and his only saving grace is that his poll numbers cannot fall much further: separate April polls by Vox Populi and Datafolha showed his popularity in single digits. Strikes against Temer’s reforms took place in over 100 cities nationwide last week. The president is facing a challenge in the Supreme Court, where the left-leaning PSOL has questioned the temporary immunity that he enjoys as head of state, as well as in the electoral court, where the 2014 Rousseff-Temer ticket’s campaign finances will be scrutinized later this month. The public overwhelmingly would like to see him replaced.

But Temer seems unlikely to be going anywhere. The court cases against him will likely be kicked down the road by judges who see little to gain from adding uncertainty to an already fraught political landscape. Congress—which would be needed to engineer any political effort to replace Temer—remains largely supportive, in part because few other senior leaders have been left standing, and few politicians are eager to replace Temer as national punching bag.  The pressure to remove Temer diminishes with every day that Brazil steps closer to the 2018 elections; there is no need to remove him, after all, if soon enough voters will have their chance to vote in a successor.

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Temer’s survival, though, is probably a mixed blessing for would-be Brazilian reformers. His failings are exposed everyday by an active opposition, and association of reforms with Temer will likely tar the legitimacy of future reformers, even after Temer has left office. The Workers’ Party (PT), in particular, has been diligent in banging home two messages: first, that the Lava Jato investigations are politically motivated; and second, that the Temer reform project of fiscal austerity, pension reform, and labor code adjustment is part of a neoliberal “coup agenda.”

The claim that Lava Jato is politically biased may help the PT to regain public support, but it also strengthens those who seek to foil anticorruption investigations: Congress has built on this sentiment to move forward a bill against so-called “abuse of authority” by prosecutors. While the bill includes some welcome controls, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is one more in a seemingly endless series of concerted efforts intended to prevent other Lava Jato investigations from emerging in the future. The PT, meanwhile, is determined to politicize the inquiry into former President Lula when he is deposed in Curitiba in the coming days: the party is planning a “caravan” to Curitiba and protests outside presiding Judge Moro’s chambers. The PT’s charge of differential treatment will find empirical confirmation in a sad reality of the Brazilian court system: the relative speed of trial courts like Moro’s, especially when contrasted with the glacial pace of the Supreme Court. This means that Lula’s case will likely be resolved years before the cases of sitting federal politicians from rival parties such as the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), whose incumbency provides them privileged standing in the glacially slow high court. A conviction in trial court, if upheld on appeal, would reinforce the discourse of partisan justice by barring Lula from competing in the 2018 election, in which he currently leads the polls.

On economic reform, the PT’s approach is opportunistic but savvy. It is opportunistic, not least because both Lula and Rousseff in past years recognized the need for change, and even undertook some reforms that moved in the same direction as Temer. But it is savvy, in part because polls show that huge majorities of the population are against cutting pension benefits, permitting labor outsourcing, and freezing public expenditures. Railing against reforms and associating them with the low-legitimacy Temer presidency will buy the PT support. It helps the party return to its historical discourse of social equality and workers’ rights, galvanize supporters, and redirect public attention away from the very serious crimes committed on its watch.

There are many unpredictable moving parts but, as it stands now, the first round of the 2018 election seems likely to feature a PT candidate who is the frontrunner in the polls, but is ineligible to run for office due to a corruption conviction. He or she will face a long list of other potential second-finishers: a tepidly reformist representative of the PSDB, such as São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, the left-leaning Marina Silva, conservative firebrand Jair Bolsonaro, eternal candidate Ciro Gomes, or São Paulo mayor and PSDB upstart João Doria.

Under these conditions, will the new president have a mandate for change? Significant progress on necessary constitutional reforms by the new president will require a strong electoral showing, support from Congress, and public backing. But a strong electoral showing may be hard to achieve in the fractured field of candidates, and even the artificial majority generated in the second round may well be fleeting—a pinch-my-nose vote between an unpalatable candidate and an only marginally more acceptable alternative. Congress is not going to be an enthusiastic backer of reforms, distracted as it will be by ongoing legal troubles, preserving its incumbent privileges, and positioning itself in a volatile environment in which voters overwhelmingly reject the established political parties. The public does not seem convinced of the need for reform, and the eager denunciation of reform by the PT and many other politicians will only make this burden heavier.

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Two scenarios could alter this sobering outlook. The first is that the PT wins, with either Lula or an as-yet-unidentified substitute, and governs pragmatically, in a scenario reminiscent of Lula’s first term in office when he strong-armed the party into adopting pension reform and prudent macroeconomic policies. The trouble with this scenario is that the PT is no longer an effective party of government, having been deeply wounded by the loss of so many leaders to the Lava Jato scandal, and it would have enormous difficulty reconciling with potential legislative allies, such as its erstwhile partners in Temer’s PMDB. The second scenario would involve a candidate who ran, and won, on an unabashedly pro-reform platform. At present, only two of the likely candidates might be able to galvanize reformist sentiment: João Doria as an economic reformer, and Marina Silva as a political reformer. The trouble with this scenario is that neither has yet consolidated their candidacy or perfected a message, and it is hard to envision a scenario in which either has substantial legislative coattails.

Many factors could yet alter this outlook, but eighteen months out, the prospects of a reformist new president with a clear mandate for change remains a distant fantasy.

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