Brazil’s senate voted to oust Dilma Rousseff from the presidency on Wednesday, following an impeachment process that has seen her suspended from office since May. Sixty-one senators, seven more than the two-thirds needed, backed her removal from office, confirming interim president Michel Temer as the country’s leader, reports The Guardian.
How bad is the crisis?
On a scale of one to 10, it has felt to many Brazilians like an 11. Rousseff, the most recent president, was impeached, the previous president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is about to stand trial, the economy is in the midst of its greatest slump for decades, and swaths of the political class have been implicated in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption investigation.
What is Lava Jato?
Depending on your politics, it is either a clean broom sweeping out decades of rotten politicians or part of a conspiracy to end 13 years of Workers party rule without an election. Starting in 2008 but ramping up in 2014, federal police, prosecutors and judges have uncovered a multibillion-dollar kickback and bribery scandal at the state-run oil firm Petrobras, the biggest company in Latin America until the scandal hit.
Essentially, contracts were inflated so up to 3% of funds could be channelled to the three parties that previously formed a ruling coalition: the Workers party, the Democratic Movement party of Brazil (PMDB) and the Progressive party. The probe, however, has widened to include other parties and other projects, including the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Some predict it will lead to the greatest jailing of lawmakers in world history.
What has been the impact on the country?
The scandal has paralysed the government because bribes were essential for building coalitions. It has also choked business because prosecutors ordered the suspension of contracts between Petrobras and its major suppliers, which included almost all of the country’s biggest construction and shipping firms. In more than two years, 61% of Petrobras’ 276,000 employees have lost their jobs, according to local media. Many smaller firms that depended on its business have been made bankrupt.
Many believe this pain will be worthwhile if the investigation leads to punishment of all corrupt politicians and sets the stage for a new era of clean government. But that future is a long way off, if it comes at all.
Why do Brazilian parties need slush funds?
Politicians all over the world need campaign finance, but it is particularly important in Brazil due to the country’s vast size, plethora of parties, three levels of government (with regular elections for municipal, state and national leaders and legislators) and an open-list election system for lawmakers. No single party has ever come close to a commanding majority in Congress, so support is bought with cabinet posts and/or cash.
Who is making the accusations?
The investigation is nationwide, but the charge is being led by judicial figures in the southern city of Curitiba. Most influential among them is Judge Sergio Moro, who has become something of a cult figure for his willingness to take on the country’s most powerful politicians and business people. Other prominent figures include Curitiba prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol and police chief Igor Romario de Paula.
Not everyone thinks they are heroes. Some lawyers claim their extensive use of preventative detentions and plea bargains rides roughshod over fundamental civil rights, including the presumption of innocence.
Who is accused?
Prosecutors claim former president da Silva (better known as Lula) was the ringleader of the scheme, though he denies breaking any law and says the charges against him are trumped up to prevent him running for office again in 2018.
Others implicated include former house speaker Eduardo Cunha (PMDB); the head of the Senate, Renan Calheiros (PMDB); and senior politicians from almost every party. In addition, many leading businessman have been jailed, including Marcelo Odebrecht, the head of the country’s biggest construction company, and billionaire banker Andre Esteves. Foreign firms, including the UK-based Rolls Royce, have also been accused of making pay-offs.
Is Dilma Rousseff implicated in the Lava Jato scandal?
Not directly. Prosecutors have found no evidence that she was involved and even her enemies acknowledge that she is one of the few politicians in Brazil not to accept bribes.
However, it is widely assumed that Rousseff must have known what was going on because she was a former energy minister and chief of staff at the height of the wrongdoing. Many of her confidants have been arrested or are on trial. Whether she was aware of what was going on or not, she benefited from the campaign funds and failed to halt the corruption. Prosecutors allege she also tried to obstruct their investigation and protect her ally Lula by appointing him to the cabinet.
Is that why Rousseff was being impeached?
Only partly, and for all the wrong reasons. Rousseff has ostensibly been thrown out of office because she window-dressed government accounts ahead of the last presidential election. The charge is that her government filled holes in its accounts by taking loans from state banks without congressional approval.
Opponents say this creative accounting – accounting sleights of hand known as “pedaladas” (pedalling) – allowed the administration to fund a program for family farmers using money that was not reimbursed until several months later, bypassing Congress, creating a misleading impression of state finances and adding to economic instability.
In her defence, Rousseff said the money was not a loan because it was simply being transferred through the state banks from public coffers. Similar practices had also been used by previous administrations, though not at the same scale.
But this is a pretext. The real reasons for impeachment are political. Rousseff is enormously unpopular because she is blamed for the multiple crises facing the country and has proved an inept leader. But Brazil’s constitution does not allow a no-confidence vote to eject her from office so her enemies are using impeachment to do the job.
Some are clearly motivated by a desire to kill the Lava Jato investigation, which Rousseff refused to do. The impeachment process was initiated by Cunha after the Workers party refused to protect him from an ethics committee investigation. Secretly recorded conversations have also revealed that the PMDB leader in the Senate, Romero Jucá, wanted to remove the president so the Lava Jato investigation could be choked by her successor.
Where does that leave interim president Michel Temer?
Rousseff’s centre-right successor is almost as despised as his predecessor after helping lead the campaign to bring down his running mate, then naming an all-male, all-white cabinet and losing three ministers to the Lava Jato scandal in his first month in office. At the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Rio, Temer was such an embarrassment that his speech was cut to 10 seconds but still drowned out by boos. He is surrounded by politicians implicated in the corruption scandal and – as leader of Brazil’s biggest party – he too has benefited from dubiously acquired campaign financing.
How has the public reacted?
Polls and street demonstration suggest voters are sick not just of the government, but almost all politicians. In March, an estimated 3 million people joined rallies against Rousseff’s government. Since then hundreds of thousands have demonstrated for or against impeachment. But none of the alternatives are popular. Temer’s administration has ratings in the low teens. Lula’s popularity is higher, but he is also hated by more people. The biggest beneficiary might eventually be former environment minister Marina Silva, a losing candidate in the last two presidential campaigns.
Where does Brazil go from here?
In a best-case scenario, the economy will pick up next year and Lava Jato will purge the nation’s political canker, allowing Latin America’s biggest nation to concentrate more effectively on social equality, sustainable development and regional integration.
Alternatively, the old hierarchy will quietly shelve Lava Jato once Lula and Rousseff are out of the way and restore the conservative policies of the past; or even open the way – as in Italy after the Clean Hands investigation – for a Silvio Berlusconi-like right-wing populist.