To coup or not to coup: radical political reform is the only way to resolve Brazil’s political crisis

Brazil continues to struggle with a political and representational crisis. As the country’s institutions collapse, the slogans Fora Temer and Volta Dilma no longer serve a purpose. Español

Aleksander Aguilar
22 July 2016

Demonstrators march holding a banner with a drawing depicting Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff that reads in Portuguese "In defense of democracy, Dilma stay" during a protest. Sao Paulo, Brazil. 2015. AP Photo/Andre Penner.

Political debate in Brazil is reaching a new level. Since May this year, when the incumbent President Dilma Rousseff was ousted and replaced with the interim government of Michel Temer, the country has been contesting the narrative surrounding the political ‘coup’. Meanwhile, the country continues to struggle with the surrounding political, institutional and representational crisis, one that since February, has been crippling the entire institutional framework of the Republic and its infamous (or rather, infamous) balance of power.

The roots of this beleaguering crisis are deep and diverse. But it is clear that it is the distorted political alliances that come as a consequence of Brazil’s ‘proportional’ institutional framework are of central importance to the debate. That is to say, that electoral system that serves the legislative powers at their various levels (municipal, state and federal), in a system of coalition Presidentialism, form the national order we see today – with all its oddities and failings. And this national order has produced a Congress that is incompatible with the programme set in 2014 by the suspended president, Dilma Rousseff, of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT).

On April 17th this year, the current National Congress of Brazil caused the nation world-wide embarrassment when it voted for the impeachment of President Rousseff, despite the lack of legal basis behind this horror-show of a decision. It lacks political reasoning and is characterized by extremely conservative fundamentalism. On May 12th, the Senate – Brazil’s upper house – approved Congress’ decision. This has created deep divisions across the country, fueled by widespread confusion and disappointment. Nevertheless, a margin of hope remains, as the country-wide debate on the future of the political system could be pointing towards a constitutional referendum that would establish early general elections.

A Rousseff return or new beginnings?

The majority of the Left’s critics complain of a current political process that is conducted with such malice and depravity. They warn of the headache that the interim government of Michel Temer, chairman of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), would bring as a long-term replacement to the previous Rousseff government.

Within Temer’s government, most of its members are associated with the denouncing of illegal election funding and wider corruption, as well as supporting the ‘Lava-Jato’ investigation. Yet this interim government now behaves as if it has assumed its position as the Federal Executive to promote an entirely new agenda from the one that was given a mandate following 2014 general election. And as such, his ongoing presidency of the Republic should be seen as an unwelcome tarnishing of Brazil’s democratic credentials.

However, the length of Temer’s provisional government, which neither provides stability nor holds popular support, should not be at the centre of the current debate: Fora Temer is not enough. For this interim government plays only a minor role in the chaos of this year’s most talked about political drama, which culminated in the political ‘coup’ that ousted Rousseff.  Yet neither would the return of unseated President guarantee any true capacity to govern, considering the congressional nature of her impeachment and the ongoing conflict between the legislative powers of the Brazilian Republic.

Therefore, in finding a solution to Brazil’s political crisis, we should be asking which legal institutions have the capacity to break the impasse between the executive and legislative branches?

What does a ‘counter coup’ look like? 

Stood in the situation it is in, one of the possible solutions to solve this institutional crisis would be to call for a constitutional referendum, in order to conform the commitment to early general elections.

However, this alternative can hardly be justified if it is understood as a political opportunity, as it has in the past, but rather as the return to a serious debate over the meaning of Brazilian democracy and the role of its institutions – with radical reform in mind.

The majority of the population (62% according to the Instituto de Pesquisa de Opinião) hold the view that civil society movements and parliamentarians can unite around a proposal for fresh presidential elections, which would set a kind of remake of Diretas Ja – in reference to the largest nation-wide mass political campaign at the beginning of the 1980s, which called for general elections as part of the end of the military dictatorship that had dragged on since 1964.

Within the ranks of the divided PT, there are those who understand that this is this alternative is the best to bring them votes in the Senate (which in August, must vote on the impeachment of Rousseff), whilst also ensuring reprisal against the previous Rousseff government for its actions. This could be resolved if the President were to block the existing agreement for a new general election. This could be resolved if the President were to block the commitment to hold fresh general election.

However, there is a group within the PT feel that see the success of the political ‘coup’ and its surrounding narrative as the best outcome. By this option, the PT could distance itself from the tarnished image of Rousseff, instead realigning with the name of Lula in its campaign to return to power as soon as possible.

The two largest trades unions and social movements in Brazil, the CUT and MST respectively, are not convinced either. However, they could well accept the proposal of a constitutional referendum if it were to convene an Exclusive Constitutional Assembly to, among other things, push for political reform – something that has been frequently been raised in Brazil for years.

With this in mind, it is clear that the situation in which Brazil finds itself in has signaled both the need and the opportunity to organize a ‘counter coup’: to start debate and to mobilize ahead of October’s general elections.

The Ongoing Debate

The debate on the meaning of the ‘coup’, and the now looming proposal of a ‘counter coup’, has proved both polemic and far reaching - not just between competing groups on the Left of the political spectrum, but also those on the Left.

The PT’s opposition to the impeachment of President Rousseff has been based entirely on the illegitimacy associated with the word ‘coup’, enabling them to mobilize large parts of the Left. It is a body of popular support that for over 30 years have seemed fragmented and dispersed, now supporting a party that – particularly in Rousseff’s second term in office – became widely accepted as being politically indefensible.

The term ‘coup’, when in the context of the 1964 coup d’état that led to the overthrowing of the democratically elected government by parts of the armed forces, obviously carries strong historic connotations for the PT and its supporters. However, it is clear that even the most fervent PT supporters know all too well that the ‘coup’ of 2016 does no align with its historic meaning in the strict sense of the word.

Meanwhile, those on the Left who reject the ‘coup’ narrative - devised and broadcasted by the PT – are not only recognizing this conceptual, or historical, adaptation of the term, but they are also looking to mark their distance from Lula´s influence on the PT and their associated models of neo-Developmentalism. In some cases, this goes as far as to question the representation of the ‘serious’ Left itself, claiming that it is time to overcome the PT era and replace it with something new.

There is as much consistency as inflexibility among those of the ‘not to Coup’ narrative, because they don’t want to allow any room for the Lulo-PT to take advantage of this situation, presenting themselves as a progressive force being attacked by the evil forces of the right - reminiscent of Joao Goulart’s government following the coup d’état.

But if this means of categorization is forced upon us (and it seems that it already is), it would still be a sensible option for those who conform with the term ‘coup’ in describing the events of May 12th understand the debate to be an actual and virtual trivialization of the word. Because, in the words of the political philosopher Rodrigo Nunes, in light of today’s context, “perhaps we still have not trivialized the word enough”.

And so, where is the democracy?

Much like the term ‘coup’, democracy – this ‘empty signifier’ in Laclauian terms – is another overused and poorly defined term. While a furor surrounds Brazil’s ‘coup’, there seems to be little understanding of what it actually is and what how it relates to what is wanted from democracy. This is despite the fact that it is seems central to the debates concerning the country’s political and institutional crises. Few seem to understand or see the opportunity that this turbulent situation presents, or more specifically, that it offers the opportunity for serious debate on the alternative way of doing politics, a new national political project.

Early general elections present this opportunity: to think about democracy in Brazil, for the exiled political forces of left to exercise their imagination and capacity for action. They offer a realistic opportunity for the mobilization of the Left, and therefore the potential for a ‘counter coup’. With the strength of popular support, there would be the opportunity to approve the institutional rites of Congress and generate the required political debate – debate that is fundamental to the reorganization of the social and political fabric of the country.

PT members and sympathizers of Dilma, instead of continuing to focus their efforts on opposing the impeachment as an attack on democracy should perhaps provide a more constructive input into the debate and see the upcoming elections as a viable ‘counter coup’, applying pressure on these institutions which, at the end of the day, they both criticize and ultimately succumb to.

What is most important to understand is that this current crisis is an ongoing process that allows for the questioning of Brazil’s institutional design, as we know it today. If Brazilians aren’t able to respond to this crisis in the radical manner that is required, they are likely to see their political and social rights take a step backwards, to a position far more threatening than that experienced under Rousseff’s leadership.

And so, as the country’s institutions collapse, the slogans Fora Temer and Volta Dilma no longer serve a purpose. There will ultimately the need to face the challenge of radical political reform.

If the state of exception became the rule, it would make no sense to continue shouting “here comes the wolf!” That wild animal devoured much of the village a long time ago and it’s now our responsibility to save what remains. The system cannot be allowed to continue in the same way, the way that allowed for the conciliation between these beasts and ordinary men. We must accept that the past cannot be changed, but the future can.

This article was published previously by Asuntos del Sur

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