Brazil might not be better off in a post-Dilma world

Michel Temer, Brazil’s vice president, comes from an ideology-free party devoted primarily to remaining in power. (Facebook)

It’s looking increasingly likely that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff might not make it through the end of her term in January 2019.brazil

On March 12, Rousseff’s main coalition partner, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) announced that it would take a full month to reconsider its support for Rousseff, currently in her second term and what amounts to the fourth consecutive term of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) that began with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s 2002 election victory.

Since mid-March, the drive to impeach Rousseff has only intensified, with prosecutors seeking to interview and possibly detain Lula da Silva himself, the godfather of not just the Brazilian left but the entire Latin American left. Rousseff attempted to appoint Lula da Silva as her chief of staff to give him the kind of ministerial role that he would need to evade potential investigation, though Brazil’s supreme court blocking the appointment in short order. Though Rousseff herself has not been personally implicated in the Petrobras scandal (whereby officials gave kickbacks to politicians in exchange for inflated construction contracts), investigators believe that Lula da Silva might be more deeply involved.

Lula da Silva, incredibly, might be arrested at any moment, which would almost certainly accelerate the push to impeach Rousseff on obscure charges about obfuscation of Brazil’s state finances during the 2014 election campaign. Also, incredibly, impeachment isn’t the only way that Rousseff might be forced from office. If it emerges that she won the 2014 presidential election through illicit money, she and the vice president could be removed through the cassação process that could vacated the election altogether.

Either way, the presidency would end up in either the hands of the PMDB: in the case of impeachment, vice president Michel Temer or, in the case that the 2014 election is annulled, the speaker of the Brazilian congress’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Câmara dos Deputados), Eduardo Cunha.

Neither result would give Brazilians much comfort about the state of their country’s government.

That’s because the PMDB is perhaps even more compromised than the Workers Party. Cunha himself is under investigation for his role in the Petrobras scandal, as is the PMDB’s Renan Calheiros, president of Brazil’s Senado (Senate). So are other key figures in the center-right opposition Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party). That means that if Rousseff falls from the presidency under the weight of the investigation into Lula and her hasty attempt to shield him from criminal inquiry (recordings of the telephone conversation between the two have now, damningly, been released), there’s every expectation that she might not be the last domino to fall in an inquiry that began nearly two years ago as Operation Car Wash. Today, Brazilians refer, more simply, to the petrolão (‘big oily’).

Cunha, a virulent anti-gay legislator, has remained defiant, even though investigators raided his home in December of last year in search of evidence for his connection to the Petrobras scandal.

Temer, for his part, isn’t directly implicated (for now) in the Petrobras scandal, just as Rousseff herself hasn’t been implicated. Temer is a talented constitutional attorney from São Paulo, and a Brazilian of Lebanese descent, first elected to the Brazilian congress in 1987 and elected as vice president on Rousseff’s ticket in 2010.

At age 75, he’s not likely to contest the 2018 elections, though. In a best-case scenario, Temer could function as a capable caretaker, just as Gerald Ford steered the United States in the mid-1970s after Richard Nixon’s resignation. The problem with Temer is that his party, the PDMB, personifies most blatantly, perhaps, the quid pro quo of political dealmaking, both above and below the table, about which Brazilians are fed up.

The party has its origins in the Brazilian Democratic Movement that began in 1965, the same year that Brazil came under military rule, and for the next 14 years, the movement was the only official opposition permitted. In its current form, the PMDB won the 1985 presidential election (though its candidate, Tancredo Neves, a longtime democracy advocate, died shortly after taking office, and the conservative José Sarney assumed the presidency until 1990).

After 1990, however, the PMDB never managed to field competitive presidential candidates and, after the 1994 election, it changed course by competing only in congressional and state elections. That left the PMDB in a position to become the kingmaker in Brazil’s presidential politics. It has a pretty good record at kingmaking — the PMDB has been part of every Brazilian governing coalition since 1990, supporting the neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1994 before Lula da Silva in 2002 and Rousseff in 2010.

It’s fair to say that, today, more than 35 years after the return of civilian rule, the only principle that pemedebismo stands for is perpetuating its own power to extract ministerial posts and other perks. In the democratic era, the PMDB has called itself a ‘big tent’ party, neither left-wing or right-wing, and it holds the governorships of seven Brazilian states (more than any other party), including the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Yet if there’s one party that conceivably personifies the rank corruption, clientelism and political patronage that seems to have rotted Brazil from its core, it’s the PDMB.  Former two-term Rio governor Sérgio Cabral is virtually a byword for political corruption, and he was the subject of widespread protests in 2013 over police brutality and the use of state funds to ferry him around in a helicopter. It’s just one of the most well-known examples of PDMB misconduct.

With so many high-profile members of its own party under investigation, it’s more likely that the PMDB will withdraw its support from Rousseff not over the rule of law or democratic principle, but for more quotidian concerns, like the relatively small number of ministerial posts she doled out to the PMDB after her 2014 reelection or, perhaps, for a wide-ranging economic reform plan that might stimulate an economy plagued not only by political uncertainty, but a tanking currency, economic recession and plummeting oil prices. Upcoming elections in 2018 could be as brutal for the PMDB as for Rousseff’s own Workers Party in the face of economic turmoil.

The danger is that a weakened Temer (or an even weaker Cunha) will govern without the kind of ability to address the kind of reforms that Brazil’s business sector and, increasingly, much of Brazil’s center-left believe are necessary to restore economic growth. That’s assuming that pemedebista president will not, himself, be subject to impeachment, rekindling the flames of Brazil’s political crisis, already now two years in the making.

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