Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is fighting for her political life after the lower house voted to impeach the Worker’s Party leader less than halfway through her mandate. The Sunday night decision took place in a rowdy six-hour marathon session, and under particularly shady premises. You see, Dilma has committed no crime of responsibility — a key premise for the ousting — meaning there is no legal basis for the move. The battle to finally unseat Rousseff now moves to the senate.
Brazil, the fourth-largest democracy in the world, is in a bad place right now. As it prepares to host the Rio Olympics in August, it’s battling a Zika epidemic causing despair across the northeast, an economic depression eating away at progress made over recent decades, and arguably the biggest corruption scandal in its history: Operação Lava Jato or ‘Operation Car Wash’, which has implicated huge swathes of the country’s political and economic elite. The move by right-wing politicians to remove Dilma from power is the cherry on top of a very sorry state of affairs.
If the senate vote to impeach Dilma, it won’t be the first time a sitting president has been removed from power. There were media-led, right-wing coups in 1937 and 1964, and in 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello faced huge protests over an influence-peddling scandal and resigned moments before the senate voted on his removal. However, unlike Collor de Mello, Rousseff hasn’t been accused of enriching herself and, more importantly, has committed no crimes, in what can only be seen as a politically motivated impeachment — known to you and me as a coup.
Although Dilma has never possessed the charisma of her PT predecessor Luíz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, there’s widespread appreciation for the achievements of her Workers Party which has ruled Brazil since 2003. It helped lift 40 million people out of poverty and integrated millions of Brazilians into the political process for the first time, from the LGBT community to poor blacks and landless peasants – many of whom fear being excluded socially and economically if PT lose power. The hashtag #NaoVaiTerGolpe (‘No to the coup’) has been circulating among those opposed to Dilma’s impeachment, which many see it as a thinly-veiled attempt to remove a democratically elected president from power by an oligarchic, right-wing elite, supported by big media, who have consistently been denied power via the ballot box for nearly 20 years.
Tensions are high on both side of the political divide, but with a final decision on Dilma’s fate not expected for weeks, where are we now and what happens next? Here’s what you need to know.
1. What is Dilma accused of?
Rousseff is accused of massaging government accounts figures with a temporary transfer of money from state banks before her re-election in 2014 in order to support social welfare programmes such as Bolsa Familia. Unlike, many of those around her, Dilma isn’t implicated in the Lava Jato inquiry, which centres around corruption at state oil giant Petrobras. In the context of the wide-scale corruption exposed elsewhere, many see this is a minor and common infraction, which occurs regularly in Brazil and elsewhere, being used as a pretext for a coup.
2. Who’s putting her on trial?
The impeachment proceedings are being led by President of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha of the PMDB party, an evangelical conservative who is himself accused of perjury and corruption in the Lava Jato inquiry and of using a Swiss bank account to conceal $40 million in bribes.
If Rousseff is deposed, she’ll be replaced in the short term by Dracula lookalike vice-president Michel Termer, who is involvement in an illegal ethanol-buying scheme. About a third of the lower house deputies are either under investigation or charged with crimes. Yes voters also included, Paulo Maluf, who is on Interpol’s red list for conspiracy; Nilton Capixiba, accused of money laundering; and Silas Camara, under investigation for forging documents and misappropriating public funds.
Perhaps the most controversial support for Dilma’s impeachment came from far-right deputy Jair Bolsonaro, who dedicated his vote to colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, leader of the Doi-Codi torture unit during Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship. A young 23-year-old Rousseff, then a former guerrilla who fought the dictatorship, was among those tortured by him. Bolsonaro’s speech was the latest of many moments during the long campaign to unseat Dilma which has had sinister echoes of the 1964 military coup. But more on that later.
3. So corruption… is it everywhere?
In short, yes. Dilma’s ruling party, PT, have questions to answer over the Petrobras scandal, which allegedly funnelled huge sums into the party’s election machine. The third of deputies from all political stripes currently under investigation are just the tip of the iceberg of decades of corruption at the top of Brazilian politics and industry. In short, political elites have bathed in corruption since colonial days. PT then entered a game they were too young and naive to engage with — and which they have failed to win.
But the anti-corruption drive has also faced huge criticism. Judge Sergio Moro, who leads the Lava Jato investigation, has become a hero to a particularly Brazilian stripe of middle class fascism, many of whom detest PT’s social policies and still live, for all intent and purposes, in colonial days, as if the plantation house were still around — which metaphorically it still is, of course. Moro has, however, alienated many with his decision to leak an illegal wiretap between Dilma Rousseff and former president Luíz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.
With those standing to gain most from Rouseff’s fall themselves implicated in corruption, and little trust in the neutrality of anti-corruption efforts, this all feels like a dark game of musical chairs where the ones left in power once the dust settles won’t be the innocent ones, but those skilled in the dark arts of media manipulation and backroom dealmaking.
4. Is this a coup, then?
Many protestors on the streets fear a repeat of the 1964 military coup. They’re worried by the passionate support the anti-government protests have received from media giant Globo, which in the 1960s used its political muscle to enable a military coup against the elected president João Goulart, leading Brazil to spend the next 21 years under a US-backed military dictatorship. With Globo reporters given tip-offs on impending (and very selective) police raids, and nearly all leaked material appearing there first, some worry history might well repeat itself.
A military coup is unlikely, but what we’re witnessing looks like a similar counter-revolution led by a white, oligarchic elite who fear PT’s redistribution of political and economic power threatens their stranglehold on power. Sensing Rousseff’s weakness, they’ve launched an impeachment initiative to do what they couldn’t achieve at the ballot box: turning back PT’s progressive agenda.
“This is a coup, a traumatic injury to Brazil’s presidential system,” Pedro Arruda, a political analyst at the Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo, told The New York Times. “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.”
5. What happens next?
Rousseff’s impeachment vote moves from the lower house to the senate, who require a simple majority to agree to consider the motion – which is likely within weeks. Rousseff would be forced to step aside for 180 days and be temporarily replaced by a centre-right administration led by vice-president Temer and his born-again Christian backer and arch-coup architect Eduardo Cunha.
Within 180 days, the senate and chief justice would have to pass their own judgment on Rousseff. If two-thirds approve, which is uncertain, she would be ejected from office and Temer would be president until the next election in 2018.
As the outcome of the vote on Sunday became clear, Jose Guimarães, the leader of the Workers Party in the lower house, conceded defeat and told The Guardian: “The fight is now in the courts, the street and the senate.”
With the corrupt hands of the establishment violating any real trust in the political process, and the right-wing media stage-managing the affair, huge sections of Brazil’s population face renewed political and economic exclusion if elites succeed in re-taking control of the country through the back door. The street could be ordinary people’s best chance to defend the hard-won rights of the previous two decades.