Even in a country whose political history is full of tragicomic moments, last week’s impeachment proceedings against Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff stand out as especially theatrical. For several weeks, politicians from the right and center-right opposition parties threatened to move in Congress against Rousseff, who leads the left-wing Workers’ Party.
Since the beginning of her second term, the beleaguered Rousseff has been dealing with a wide-ranging corruption investigation that has uncovered evidence of massive graft across the private and public sectors. Emboldened by conservative mobilizations in the streets, the media have been marching to the drumbeat of impeachment for months, and the currency is in free fall.
The only person who may initiate the impeachment process, though, is the speaker of the house, Eduardo Cunha of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), nominally an ally of the ruling coalition. He too has been dogged by ethics charges, owing to recently surfaced evidence of graft and secret Swiss bank accounts in his name worth millions of dollars. The ethics committee he faced was made up of legislators from various parties, including the PMDB and the Workers’ Party.
Within hours of Workers’ Party representatives announcing they would vote against him in the ethics committee, Cunha formally initiated impeachment proceedings, in an apparent act of retaliation, exacerbating Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil. Vice President Michael Temer, also of the PMDB, has been silent in recent days. Some observers have interpreted this as a signal that he might support the impeachment as a way to ascend politically.
For impeachment to succeed, it must first survive legal challenges mounted by government lawyers, then clear a congressional committee and Congress before moving to a Senate vote, where the impeachment would take place. Although the corruption scandal has ensnared members of all major parties, Rousseff’s name has not appeared in any of those allegations. The legal claim for the impeachment is a technicality concerning the national budget: releasing funds from one year’s budget to the next, a questionable but widely practiced fiscal maneuver in Brazil at all levels of government.
Legal opinions aside, whether impeachment happens will have less to do with technicalities than with political alliances and mobilization in the next weeks. At the moment, the numbers appear favorable for Rousseff, with enough legislators opposing the process in both houses of Congress to defeat it. A number of important figures from other political parties have come out against impeachment, as have major civil society organizations, including the National Association of Lawyers and the National Conference of Bishops. They are united in defense of democracy and its institutions rather than in support of the Workers’ Party or Rousseff.
But it is still early, and the government has an interest in holding votes on impeachment as soon as possible. Members of the congressional coalition could desert the president and shift the balance against her, and analysts predict that social mobilizations against her could start up again, especially after Carnival in February.
Beyond the congressional numbers game, there are fundamental social conflicts at work. Brazil today is in its most politically polarized state since the return to democracy in the mid-1980s. Like other countries in Latin America, Brazil is facing a wave of discontent and a backlash against the redistributive projects of the so-called pink tide that appeared to dominate the region in the mid-2000s. From Argentina to Venezuela to Paraguay, conservative political forces have gathered momentum in recent years by leveraging middle-class dissatisfaction with the policies of center-left governments.
Though Brazil is undergoing a conservative backlash, it is not clear that conservative forces will be able to rally around the impeachment. Congress is more conservative than at any other time in recent memory, and there is an openly right-wing discourse in Brazil that was unknown just a few years ago. But large-scale right-wing mobilizations driven by hostility to the Workers’ Party and corruption, which had been taking place regularly since 2013, seemed to run out of steam in the last few months. As corruption investigations have decisively implicated all political parties, it has become difficult to justify protests only against the Workers’ Party. That Cunha, the man leading the impeachment process, is deeply implicated in graft schemes has undermined the anti-corruption wave.
Moreover, calls on the far right for a return to military dictatorship have alienated more moderate allies. Rousseff is an unpopular but democratically elected leader, and to many Brazilians, it seems contradictory to campaign in favor of democratic institutions while supporting a white coup against the president.
On the other hand, whether the Workers’ Party will be able to maintain a progressive majority, both to survive the impeachment and then to successfully govern, is an open question. Some analysts have argued, not entirely without cause, that the threat of a coup could realign progressive forces in Brazil, ultimately conferring new legitimacy on the president. And it is true that the impeachment process has brought out energized supporters as well as left-wingers who had abandoned the Workers’ Party in recent months.
But Rousseff has become very isolated from her base. Since the beginning of the year, the national government has found itself carrying out increasingly neoliberal economic policies in an attempt to improve a stalled economy and reinvigorate investor confidence. Workers’ Party legislators have found themselves making deals in Congress to approve measures the party has historically opposed, alienating its traditional social movement and union base.
In October, in response to the downgrading of the country’s credit rating, Rousseff announced a multibillion-dollar austerity package that promised severe cuts across all areas of government, including abolishing 10 of the country’s 39 ministries. A stopgap measure meant to assure investors and arrest the currency’s months-long free fall, the plans threaten several of the government’s important projects, including its marquee housing and social programs.
In recent days, traditional allies of the Workers’ Party, including the national unions and progressive social movements such as the student movement and the landless movement, have come out against the impeachment, promising to take the struggle to the streets as long as necessary and using slogans that evoke the resistance movement that fought the 1964 military coup. But these movements are still searching for a way to support the government without endorsing its recent policies. Avoiding a coup is a priority, but restoring the progressive project now that the national Workers’ Party seems to have abandoned it is a longer, much more elusive goal.