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Brazilian political cycles and the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff

The impeachment process marks the end of the three different political cycles undergone by Brazil since the 1970s. Something new has to emerge.

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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff reacts during her impeachment trial at the Federal Senate in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 29, 2016. Eraldo Peres/Press Association. All rights reserved.The conclusion of the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff, elected president of Brazil for the second time in 2014, is a watershed in the country’s recent history. Its passing in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate will prove traumatic in the long run, despite the easy majorities it mustered, since it meant a partial rupture of the 1988 Constitutional pact. This goes well beyond the actual event, however, in that it condenses the end of three different political cycles undergone by Brazil since the 1970s.

Political cycles

The longest cycle to be taken into account is that which started in the positive initial stages of the struggle against military dictatorship. Within the left there had been a debate about the limits of the Brazilian Communist Party’s (PCB) ‘reformist’ perspective. This led to the mushrooming of guerrilla groups, easily smashed by the regime. Eventually the democratic front strategy, bringing together popular, left-wing forces and the liberal opposition, paid off. The 1974 congress electoral defeat of civilian forces that supported the regime (elections never stopped in Brazil, despite their extremely restricted character) was the beginning of a long process of democratization. Amnesty in 1979, elections for state governors in 1982 – mostly won by opposition forces – and especially the election of a constituent Congress (turned into the National Constitutional Assembly) and its outcome, the so-called ‘citizen Constitution’ of 1988, all were hallmarks of this long cycle of democratization. Fernando Collor de Mello was elected president in 1989, against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Worker’s Party (PT) main leader, on a neoliberal platform, but was impeached due to corruption charges (true but not really ever proved). Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the lauded sociologist, was elected twice thereafter on a similar but more moderate platform, with more consistent social policies and some success in stabilising an economy long in crisis.

Then eventually Lula and the PT won the 2002 elections, although agreements with centre and centre-right parties were necessary to govern. The Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB), successor to the MDB, the democratic front party that fought against the military regime (though much deteriorated), stood out in this regard. The left alliance was too small to govern (including the Partido Comunista do Brasil – PcdoB, not the one that had proposed the democratic front, Partido Socialista Brasileiro PSB, and Partido Democrático Trabalhista PDT).

This long process represented what I refer to as the passage from ‘instituting citizenship’ to ‘instituted citizenship’. Popular mobilization produced a situation in which personnel and policies were changed. Social policies multiplied – especially with the (social liberal) Bolsa Família programme – and new agents occupied the state. A new, Latin American and south-oriented foreign policy was put into practice.

Yet when Lula and the PT got into power, there was no sustained popular mobilization in the country. During the 1990s the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST) was the only force capable of challenging Cardoso, even managing to secure a partial land reform. The Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) was on the defensive, due to recession and the brutal measures taken by Cardoso at the very beginning of his government. Lula and his party decided not to try to resume the mobilization that marked their former years, instead concentrating on negotiations at the top.

What was not clearly understood outside their circle was that the neopatrimonial exploitation of the state, for electoral purposes as well as embezzlement, buttressed the alliance with those centre and centre-right parties. The first political-judicial problems soon appeared, though, with what the conservative press dubbed the ‘mensalão’, in this case referring to Lula’s first electoral campaign, when several of PT’s leading figures were convicted by the Supreme Federal Court (STF), in a judgement considered by many rather dubious.

During Lula’s governments, that long wave of democratic development exhausted itself. Energies, ideas, agendas, people and leadership based on unionism – all aged irremediably. But the success, especially of Lula’s second government, allowed him to elect his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla apparatchik and minister of his (who he thought he could control). However, the situation had dramatically changed. A new political cycle was soon to commence, and the left was ill-prepared – lazy intellectually (thinking had never been a strong aspect of the PT) and arrogant, as though its former victories and popular support up to that point could last forever. The combination of the pragmatism of trade unionists who were the main force in the party and the closed, machine-oriented, mentality of militants who had survived the armed struggle to take high office exacted its inevitable toll (the Catholics, so important at the beginning, saw their influence dwindle). Everything was allowed it seemed, to keep power.

The 2013 demonstrations were the proof that a new cycle was opening. They consisted of millions of people filling the streets of Brazil in a very peculiar way. They were individualistic but also very collectively oriented, with demands for social policies but a rejection of political parties, with a ‘magmatic’ quality mainly relished by young people of all political persuasions, and especially with none, at least as clearly formulated. They also clearly showed a desire to re-connect with the former period of mobilization.

On top of that, in 2014 there appeared the Lava-Jato Operation (the Quick-Wash Operation, as it is known). It started by chance with an investigation into money laundering via a gas station. This led to the discovery of a huge scheme of corruption in the national oil company, Petrobras, the jewel and icon of Brazilian nationalism. Mostly centre and centre-right parties were implicated, but also the PT. Furthermore this was under Lula’s and Rousseff’s governments. Instead of supporting the investigation by the Public Ministry (MP), as it would have done in previous decades, the PT reacted as if this was a plot to get it out of government and even to destroy it. The ‘mensalão’ case has already undermined the party’s credibility and alienated its former support in the middle classes, but this later case was even more devastating.

If the first and longest aforementioned cycle featured a process of democratization, the other two established the absolute hegemony of the PT within the Brazilian left and in government. The first of these is over, since there has been a pluralization within the centre-left and the left, while the second ended with Rousseff’s extremely unsuccessful  governments, thanks to very poor political skills and a process of political isolation that was constructed piecemeal. It is the superimposition of these three cycles, the last one abbreviated by impeachment, that has lent such a dramatic character to the political dynamic in the last three years or so. This was compounded by the fact that the political system is in tatters, seen by most of the population as corrupt and unrepresentative – an astonishing outcome given the fact that until very recently Lula and Dilma secured very high approval ratings. But this is by no means any longer the case.

In fact, the Lava-Jato Operation is uncovering hidden schemes related to building companies that involve all political parties and several state governments and mayors. The ‘delação premiada’, as it is popularly known – meaning the full exposure of these schemes in exchange for a (drastic) reduction in the length of sentences – as admitted to by these companies’ executives and some politicians, is having a profound impact on the entire system.

The final turn of the tide

Rousseff still managed to win the 2014 elections, against a background of economic crisis, but promising more than she could deliver, pushing hard a left agenda against her neoliberal competitor, Aécio Neves, of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB), Cardoso’s party. Before even being re-inaugurated president, Rousseff announced a U-turn in her policies, taking up Neves’ defeated programme in an effort to appease capitalists disgruntled both by her ill-designed ‘neo-developmentalist’ economic policies and by earlier rises in wage levels (though they had benefited a lot from the former and even the latter, with the expansion of the internal market).

At the same time the PSDB, now firmly positioned on the right, did not accept defeat. Since nothing could be alleged about the elections, a very imaginative and opportunistic reading of impeachment constitutional provisions was formulated in order to bring her government down (as if she had committed a crime). With the left demoralized to a great extent, large swathes of the middle classes (older than those in 2013) took to the streets. But in fact more than 70 percent of the population supported the impeachment process, further legitimized by similar procedures against Collor. The difference was that Collor had no proper party and confronted both congress and society, so that eventually almost the whole country turned against him. By contrast Rousseff had the organized left – including most of the currents that did not support her government – backing her against the impeachment process. This allowed for huge street demonstrations, regardless of their ineffectiveness.

This meant that a parliamentary coup was staged against Rousseff, with dedicated support from the media monopolies (which Lula never touched), in particular the infamous Globo Organizations. At several points the left discourse compared this situation to the 1964 putsch, but the comparison does not stand up. The Brazilian population would not back a military adventure (in which the army is not interested, in any case), but as the impeachment process formally proceeded according to the law, it was seen as legitimate and has led to no institutional rupture.

Yet most of the population also want to get rid of vice-president Michel Temer, of the PMDB, who openly conspired against Rousseff and is seen a corrupt figure in his own right, alongside the powerful, sinister and extremely corrupt former president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, who he has covertly defended from losing his mandate, out of fear of being denounced by him.

Temer is seen by the population as having a shared responsibility in the situation of the country. His government suffers from illegitimacy and is rather fragile not least as a result of corruption problems its own members have with the law. On the other hand, this can make it quite desperate to please the businessmen who supported the coup, triggering populist reactions. So far, however, tough measures have been avoided. Its future is uncertain.

Some would say that the judiciary was part of the coup, pointing to the MP’s supposed choice of the PT and Lula personally, as well as the inaction of the Supreme Federal Court (STF) against it. This is a mistaken interpretation, although the centre-right parties will themselves be tested as to their impartiality, or at least their strength in surpassing the obstacles and traps these forces throw up, as the investigation moves closer to them. The judiciary has become a powerful and awfully wealthy system in its own right in Brazil, affording very high wages and enjoying many advantages. But in particular the MP has its own agenda, in which the fight against corruption has played a prominent role, with the full support of a number of judges, including Sérgio Moro who is in charge of the Lava-Jato operation. Meanwhile, the STF has implicitly considered impeachment to be a political problem, to be sorted out by politicians, not having the internal unity to take any bolder steps with respect to the issue in any event.

From Marx to Huntington social scientists have recognized that when the link between the represented and representatives is broken other societal or state forces emerge that may steer the country in an unexpected direction, be that an individual or a corporation. Though we cannot really speak of a ‘praetorian’ perspective since the judiciary has refrained from embracing open political roles, the MP has decided to moralize politics in the country (proposing also a tougher legislation). This may entail authoritarian practices (and some argue that this is what is happening) and has usually been associated with right-wing thinking. But due to the levels of corruption found in the current investigations there has been strong support for their continuation. All parties and many of the big names in politics – such as Neves in particular – are being denounced and are likely to be eventually sued if, beyond ‘delações’, there is more concrete evidence against them (despite various complications in the process). This is not to deny that a liberal (though not neoliberal) outlook is strong across the judiciary in Brazil, often combined with conservative tendencies. But it is clear also that the left has been showing itself incapable of disputing this perspective within the judiciary.

It is worth noting that this return of the right is happening across Latin America. In Argentina Maurício Macri’s victory, alongside now the internal problems of Peronism, has radically changed the landscape and in Venezuela the Chavista experience is ending as badly as possible. In Colombia, in addition, a centre-right government is striking a long-awaited deal to finish the even longer civil war. In Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile, despite problems, the situation is not so difficult, but overall it is not promising regarding what was once defined as the Latin American ‘left turn’, let alone the dire situation of Mexico and the slow reconversion of Cuba.

A new cycle

We are beginning a new political cycle in Brazil, but its contours are difficult to fathom.   In principle it could be easily characterized as the hegemony of the right. In a sense this is actually what has been happening, since neoliberalism – in all its dimensions – is today deep-seated in Brazilian society, beyond economic policies. But they have troubles of their own, since especially the PSDB is a party divided and beset. Such policies, if followed systematically, spell disaster for the country and are profoundly unpopular.

In any case, Temer, who is at the head of an obviously illegitimate government, has promised businessmen – now under the hegemony of finance capital once again – a tough neoliberal adjustment. He did not make any stronger move until the impeachment was secured and will probably wait as well until the October municipal elections are over. But maybe in 2017 he will go for it. Except, perhaps, if his PMDB decides that it wants to have a go at the presidential elections (having contented itself so far with getting into government by supporting either the PT or the PSDB). It could then not afford to be unpopular, though fixing the economy could also be an asset.

They will in any case implement a social liberal policy much more restricted than that of the Lula and Rousseff governments. Besides, they seem to be planning a self-amnesty to deliver themselves from charges related to corrupt campaign schemes as well as a political reform that will block the renewal of the political system. At rock bottom, what matters is to escape the Lava-Jato.

A new, heterogeneous centre is emerging, which has a strong left-of-centre countenance, though often until now inclined to centre-right alliances. This is represented mainly by Marina Silva, the old PT’s environmentalist militant, Lula’s former minister and presidential candidate, and her Sustainability Network (Rede) party. Whether it will end up in the medium term allied to right-wing forces or will eventually strike a deal with the left is an open question, though the latter has systematically shown itself hostile to her.

The left as such is undergoing a difficult and painful process of reorganization. New social movements have emerged (some with a decidedly more horizontal perspective); older ones struggle to reawaken. The PT is in a deep crisis (which may lead to its fracturing, given its stubborn and narrow-minded character). The Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL) is growing, but overall styles and programmes are still limited, let alone coalitions between its different expressions. It is as if most are either banking on a Lula candidacy in 2018 (the so-called ‘Lulistas’) or a return – away from ‘class conciliation’ – to the PT’s 1980s model, to solve the stalemates of the left. They won’t. Unfortunately, little strategic thinking is being developed right now.

A new cycle will unfold, no matter what. The options are open and our sociological skills will be necessary to make sense of it, as well as possibly our practical imagination, at least for some of us, if we are to contribute to pushing the political process in a progressive direction.

How to cite:
Domingues J.M.(2016) Brazilian political cycles and the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,1 September.
About the author

José Maurício Domingues is Professor of Sociology at IESP-UERJ and Associated Researcher at CEE Fiocruz. Author of the book O Brasil entre o passado e o futuro (Rio de Janeiro: Mauad, 2015, 2nd edition).

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