Corruption crisis highlights fragility or robustness of Brazil’s democracy?


Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s government vowed on Monday to fight impeachment after the lower house of Congress delivered a humiliating defeat that paved the way for her likely removal from office months before the country hosts the Olympics, Reuters reports:

Claudio Couto, professor of political science at Fundação Getulio Vargas, said that Sunday’s loss dramatically weakened Rousseff’s ability to strike political bargains and shore up support for her government.

“It is almost impossible the Senate will not take up the impeachment. And with her removal for up to six months, the government’s power of persuasion will be dramatically diminished,” he said.

In putting together a new governing team, [the likely new president and current vice-president, Michel] Temer will have to balance technocratic competence with the demands of coalition-building among the 27 parties in Brazil’s fractious Congress, The Economist observes:

He may struggle to attract outside talent because of the PMDB’s image problem. The party, which was the PT’s closest ally until it broke ranks last month, is also embroiled in the Petrobras affair. Six of its senior congressmen are under investigation, including Mr Calheiros; the Supreme Court has already indicted the Speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, for corruption and money laundering.

There are questions as to whether the volume of the leaks — and the political motives that some believe lie behind some of them — show that Brazil’s democracy is growing more robust or that its institutions remain immature, The FT observes.

“Democracy is not based on boundless freedoms, but on responsibility and checks and balances,” said Carlos Alberto Furtado de Melo, a professor at Insper, a business school in São Paulo.

Brazilian legislators voted on Sunday night to approve impeachment of Rousseff, the nation’s first female president, whose tenure has been buffeted by a dizzying corruption scandal, a shrinking economy and spreading disillusionment, The New York Times reports:

After three days of impassioned debate, the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, voted to send the case against Ms. Rousseff to the Senate. Its 81 members will vote by a simple majority on whether to hold a trial on charges that the president illegally used money from state-owned banks to conceal a yawning budget deficit in an effort to bolster her re-election prospects. That vote is expected to take place next month.

“This is a coup, a traumatic injury to Brazil’s presidential system,” said Pedro Arruda, a political analyst at the Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo. “This is just pretext to take down a president who was elected by 54 million people. She doesn’t have foreign bank accounts, and she hasn’t been accused of corruption, unlike those who are trying to impeach her.”

Incredible acts of corruption

It is inaccurate to describe Brazil as a kleptocracy, some observers contend.

But Latin American analyst Sean Burges of the Australian National University told VOA that the Brazilian governments of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Rousseff, his handpicked successor, have engaged in “pretty incredible acts of corruption, but no worse than any other party that’s been in charge in Brazil.”

He said that “in terms of legitimacy, whoever is in charge in Brazil is going to have a horrendous time.”

The hard-charging style that won Rousseff plaudits as a cabinet minister backfired when it came to managing her party’s diverse and unruly governing coalition as president, The Wall Street Journal adds:

Party leaders complained they couldn’t get meetings with her. She got involved in decisions as minor as seating arrangements at events, people who worked with her said, creating policy bottlenecks.

“Sadly, Dilma thought that all she had to do was give directions, rather than build loyalty and smooth feathers day in and day out,” said Matthew Taylor, an associate professor of political science at American University who studies Brazil.

But the impeachment drive isn’t about anger at statistical manipulation, Vox adds:

How do we know? Because the vast majority of Brazil’s Congress is itself facing corruption charges, as the Los Angeles Times’s Vincent Bevins explains:

Of 65 members on the impeachment commission, 37 face charges of corruption or other serious crimes, according to data prepared for the Los Angeles Times by the local organization Transparencia Brasil.

Of the 513 members of the lower house in Congress, 303 face charges or are being investigated for serious crimes. In the Senate, the same goes for 49 of 81 members.

Some political analysts said they worried that the move to impeach Ms. Rousseff would cause lasting damage to Brazil’s young democracy, re-established in 1985 after two decades of military dictatorship, The Times adds:

Although legal experts and political analysts are divided, many have expressed concern over the basis of the impeachment drive. They note that the budgetary sleight of hand that Ms. Rousseff is accused of employing to address the deficit has been used by many elected officials, though not on so large a scale.

“It’s putting a very large bullet in Brazilian democracy,” said Lincoln Secco, a professor of history at the University of São Paulo. “This will set a very dangerous precedent for democracy in Brazil, because from now on, any moment that we have a highly unpopular president, there will be pressure to start an impeachment process.”

Brian Winter, a Brazil expert and the vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, said that Rousseff’s impeachment was a process from which few winners would emerge, The Washington Post reports.

“I worry history may take a dim view of both President Rousseff and this impeachment,” he said.

“Brazil’s economy is in its worst recession in at least 80 years in large part because of mistakes Rousseff made. But it’s hard to see how this impeachment — under dubious circumstances, by a Congress just as unpopular as she is — will lead to solutions in the near term,” Winter said.

“In coming weeks, I think you’ll see Rousseff pull out every legal and political means at her disposal to stay in office,” he added. “It’s going to be a messy transitional period of weeks or months, full of protests and polarization. Brazil’s economy needs strong leadership to pass a new wave of reforms, pull out of this mess and get back on the path it was on last decade when it dazzled the world.”

Although Brazil has been rocked by public anger over corruption, bringing Rousseff to the brink of impeachment, events have also shown that rule of law in the country is strong, analyst Marcus André Melo explains in “Crisis and Integrity in Brazil.”

“The key lesson is that reasonably strong political competition and check-and-balance institutions have prevented the kind of power abuses that have become all too common in Latin America despite democracy’s return a few decades ago (Chile and Uruguay stand as honorable exceptions in this regard),” he writes in an article in the latest issue of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. “Another important lesson is that the return to macroeconomic populism has failed…. voters increasingly see social inclusion within the bounds of fiscal responsibility as the way forward. … The strengthening of the rule of law is no small accomplishment and Brazil’s democracy will probably come out stronger.”

But some observers insist that an unconstitutional coup is taking place.

In an address to the International Academic Community to report a serious breach of law, Brazilian academics insist that an unconstitutional coup is taking place, threatening Brazil’s longest period of democratic stability.

Yet the coup talk is overblown. A coup is a violent or illegal overthrow of a standing government. That is not the case here, The FT notes:

The corruption inquiry is being prosecuted by independent judges, not generals in dark glasses. It has fingered lawmakers across the political spectrum, and some billionaire businessmen too. The constitution also allows for impeachment, should two-thirds of Congress vote for it……

While analysts said the judge’s release of the Lula wiretaps were technically legal, the extensive leaks of witness testimonies made during plea bargains in the Petrobras case has proven more controversial.

“The details of an investigation that is still under way into a criminal matter should not be revealed,” said Flávio de Leão Barros, a law professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo. “It appears to me that leaks on the eve of important occasions sometimes seem to have a certain selectivity,” he tells the FT, adding that the barrage of leaks also pointed “to the fragility of our institutions”, because they indicated that powerful figures in the media, politics and other sectors were able to extract sensitive information from state organs such as police investigators and state prosecutors.

Even at the outset of the regional swing to the left it wasn’t easy to sway Brazilians in the direction of Bolivarian populism, one analyst suggests:

The nation still carries the psychological scars of the 1964-85 military government. Civil society is a rich mosaic of legal, trade and agricultural associations and media and religious groups that jealously guard free speech, civil liberties and institutional independence.

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