Why the political crisis in Brazil isn’t a coup

A suspended president, an impeachment campaign and a corruption scandal reaching into the heart of power: Brazil's government may be in turmoil but, crucially, it is still ruled by the law.

Pedro Doria
25 May 2016

A demonstrator shouts slogans during a protest in Brazil in March. Credit: Silvia Izquierdo/AP/

A demonstrator shouts slogans against now-suspended Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff during a protest in March. Credit: Silvia Izquierdo/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

openDemocracy is pluralist in opinion and committed to encouraging debate. We've been covering all sides of the situation in Brazil. Read some of the many other opinions: Jan Rocha on Temer's government preparing to roll back green laws; Alicia Castro arguing against the media marshalling public opinion in Dilma Rousseff's impeachment proceedings; Fernando Betancor on how the political 'quake' is affecting Brazil's economy and Bruno Cava on why we should reject the language of a 'coup'.

 A group of Brazilian actors stopped on the red carpet during the recent Cannes Film Festival, in France, to pose for photographers with placards in their hands. 'A coup took place in Brazil' was printed on one. '54 million votes set on fire' on another. Kleber Mendonça Filho, director of the critically acclaimed Aquarius and leader of the troupe, runs a foundation linked to the federal government. When asked by a reporter if he thought his job was on the line, his answer came fast: “We live in a democracy.”

And he is right, of course. Brazil is a democracy. There was no coup.

In the annals of political science, a coup d’état is usually defined as the illegal overthrow of government by an arm of the state. In Latin America, the arm in fault is usually the army. In Brazilian history alone there were successful military putsches in 1889, 1930, and 1964. Add to that three failed attempts in 1922, 1924 and 1954. It is quite a record. But this time around, the generals were nowhere to be seen. What is happening now, many on the left will say, is a parliamentary coup.

A ‘parliamentary coup’ is at least a novel concept. Usually, after coups, parliaments are forcefully closed.

Dilma Rousseff was re-elected president in November 2014 with 54.5 million votes. Her rival, senator Aécio Neves, got 51 million. On election night, nobody would risk guessing the result. It could have gone either way. The campaign season had been tough and aggressive for both sides. And although her own Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores in Portuguese, PT) did end up winning its fourth term in office, it was, for the first time, by a tight margin. In her victory speech, Rousseff never mentioned her rival. Brazil ended up deeply polarised. There was, and there still is, anger in the streets. 
What is happening now, many on the left will say, is a parliamentary coup.
2015 was marked by an increasingly serious financial crisis and an investigation nicknamed Operation Car Wash. The federal police, public prosecutors and a judge specialised in financial crimes in southern Brazil started making high-profile arrests. First, powerful executives at Petrobras, the state-run oil company. Then, directors and even the presidents of some of Brazil's largest contracting companies. Finally, politicians. In the same week the actors were crying coup, José Dirceu, former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s right hand, was sentenced to over 23 years in prison on corruption charges. Dirceu was seen as Lula’s political heir before Rousseff.

This is the second corruption scandal during PT’s 13-year reign. Dirceu himself already spent a year in jail because of a scheme he ran from inside the Presidential Palace. According to the Supreme Court, he organised the payment of monthly stipends to congressmen in order to maintain a winning streak in congress. It was because of this scandal at the end of Lula’s first term that his party changed tactics. Instead of paying congressmen directly they embraced a coalition with the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the largest and oldest in the country, placed in the center-right. Ideologically, it made no sense. But, in Brazilian politics, coherence is not that valued.

Cast of Aquarius hold placards protesting Brazil's political situation at Cannes Film Festival. Credit: Lionel Cironneau/AP/Pres

Cast of Aquarius hold placards protesting Brazil's political situation at Cannes Film Festival. Credit: Lionel Cironneau/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.PMDB had two important tools to offer. First, a well-oiled party machine spread across the country with local deputies in places that nobody else is capable of reaching. Because of the corruption stain, PT was losing many of its traditional voters in the urban middle classes. PT surely developed its own machine while in power, but PMDB was of fundamental help. They also brought a majority in congress to the table. Lula, an outstanding and charismatic populist in his own right, played the game well. Rousseff, who has a temper and seems obviously uneasy with the partnership, didn’t.

Operation Car Wash—or the Petrobras scandal as it is often referred to in the media—is the biggest ever corruption investigation in Brazil. One of its most high-profile scalps, Marcelo Odebrecht, owner of the largest construction conglomerate in Latin America and one of the richest men in the country, has been in jail for over a year serving a sentence of 19 years for corruption.The hole in Petrobras’ official numbers alone represents 1% of Brazil's GDP (That’s a lot: in 2015, Brazil’s economy ranked 9th in the world according to the IMF). And that’s only what the company acknowledges it has lost because of bad deals and overpayments to cover bribes. Add the economic troubles, with unemployment reaching 10%, to the investigations and it all blew into a major political crisis. Rousseff lost her support in Congress when an astute Rio de Janeiro PMDB deputy called Eduardo Cunha became President of the Lower House. An outspoken critic of Rousseff, he orchestrated a successful vote to impeach the president. But Cunha himself, with many scandals of his own, was recently taken out from office by the Supreme Court and is under investigation, accused of trying to obstruct a corruption investigation against him and intimidating lawmakers. 

Suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Credit: Eraldo Peres/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Credit: Eraldo Peres/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Cunha is not the only high profile PMDB politician who has been caught trying to obstruct justice. One week after the protests in Cannes, Folha de São Paulo, a major newspaper, exposed recorded conversations between Romero Jucá, the interim planning minister and a former senator. Jucá’s family has been in the Senate since the mid-19th century—one of the Brazilian oligarchical clans so common in that party. He is personally one of the interim president’s closest allies and was a newly appointed minister. In the recording, he appears to talk openly about impeachment as the way to seize power and block corruption investigations. He announced he was going to step down shortly after the revelations, but the episode certainly solidifies the impression many Brazilians have that both deputies and senators are not voting to oust Rousseff with the country's best interests in mind.

The tragedy of Rousseff's party, in the end, is really this. As the main opposition left-wing party, it cried loud and clear about the sort of ostensive corruption that seemed inseparable from the state. It bitterly questioned income inequality. That message resonated deeply with voters. In power, it did face the inequality problem. But, while there, many party officials got rich themselves. It decided against dealing with congress using the tools of politics, opting for bribery instead. In the end, it even gave up on the left-wing agenda. PT turned its back on sustainability policies, womens’, native Brazilians’ and LGBT rights, and even to good, old, plain honesty.

Rousseff was impeached by the Lower House charged with cooking the books during the 2014 election year to dispel the idea that there was a financial crisis looming. According to the constitution, in order to impeach a president, he or she must be guilty of a 'crime of responsibility'. Cooking the books, her defense states, is common practice in the country and shouldn’t be seen as a serious offence. It is, they say, an excuse. And, therefore, it’s really a coup. 
If it is a coup, it’s not only a parliamentary one. It’s also judicial.
If it is a coup, it’s not only a parliamentary one. It’s also judicial. The Supreme Court is following the rules of impeachment with care. One of the justices already stated that it will be the Senate and not the Court’s job to decide on what constitutes a ‘crime of responsibility’. That’s exactly what’s written in the constitution. Eight out of the 11 justices, by the way, were nominated by Rousseff or her predecessor. It is surely a political judgement. But that’s what you get when the rules give senators, and not judges, the final call. That’s actually how impeachment works in most republics. Even in the United States.

In her defence, Rousseff often states she did not personally enrich herself. That she is personally honest. It seems to be true. But she was also the president of the board of Petrobras when the scheme was built. And, besides, there’s already enough proof that her campaign was at least partially financed with money from the Petrobras scandal. Corruption paid for her victory and, of course, that of the other guy on her ticket—Michel Temer, Brazil’s interim president.

Still, her impeachment is not what most Brazilians want, according to polls. What most people want are new elections. Unfortunately, the constitution does not mention recalls. And the only good thing that remains to be said about the sorry state of Brazilian politics is that, for the first time in history, the crisis may be serious but the country is still ruled by the law. And its long arm is reaching many in high places.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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