Global Independent Analytics
James N. Green
James N. Green

Location: USA

Specialization: Latin America, Brazil

Politics in Brazil: Fasten Your Seat Belts!

“First we get rid of Dilma and then we will get rid of the rest.”

In the 1950 Oscar-winning film, All About Eve, Bette Davis warns her party guests in a classic quip: “Fasten your seatbelt. You’re in for a bumpy night.” Nothing could be truer for Brazil today, although it seems that the turbulence might last much more than one bouncy night. Indeed, the economic and political crises that are ravaging the country show no signs of letting up anytime soon. Every day’s news cycle brings novel twists to the political drama being played out that makes it hard to imagine a near-term resolution to the events that have polarized the nation.

The epicenter of this enormous imbroglio is the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. Initiated on December 2, 2015 by Eduardo Cunha, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, it was an act of retaliation against the government for not defending him in an administrative hearing in the Ethics Commission. Overnight, the miffed politician presided over a speeded-up impeachment process that could lead to a vote in the Senate next Wednesday that would remove Rousseff from office for up to 180 days.

Although Cunha initiated the impeachment proceedings last December, they only went forward months later when the economic and political situation had gotten significantly worse. A weakened and unpopular government had little ability to resist the onslaught. After a special commission of the Chamber of Deputies had approved impeachment charges, it moved to a general vote of the whole body on April 17 with 367 votes in favor and 137 against recommending an impeachment trial in the Senate.

This was the first big step that seemed to prove that the government didn’t have enough strength to prevent its own downfall. The declaration of vote by those deputies favoring impeachment, however, had enormous repercussions in Brazil and abroad. Rather than emphasizing the accusations that Rousseff had ignored budgetary laws, which was the essence of the impeachment charges, deputies stood up and explained their vote one-by-one, citing personal rather than legal reasons for their decision: “For my wife Paula;” “For my daughter who is about to be born and my niece Helena;” “For my grandson Gabriel;” “For my aunt who raised me;” “For my family and the State,” “For God;” “For the military and the 1964 coup d’état;” “For the anniversary of my city;” “For Evangelical Christians;” “In the defense of oil; “For large-scale farmers,” “For the insurance brokers of Brazil.” Watching the four-hour spectacle seemed like a parody of politics more than a serious procedure to remove a president from office who had been elected only eighteen months previously with 54 million votes.

The process then moved to the Senate, which formed a Special Commission that needed to present formal charges. The person responsible for preparing the report was Senator Antonio Anastasia, who has been accused of carrying out the same supposedly illegal budgetary procedures when he was the governor of the state of Minas Gerais. His report recommended taking the charges against President Rousseff to the full body of the Senate for a vote. On May 6, the Special Commission approved Anastasia’s report. It now goes to the full body of the Senate.  On May 11, Senators will vote by a simple majority for or against an impeachment trial. If the report is approved, Rousseff will be removed from office for up to 180 days to present her defense. In the meantime, Vice President Temer will assume the presidency until the final vote in the Senate. If 2/3 of the members vote yes, President Rousseff will be impeached.

The carefully scripted timeline that seemed to lead to the certain removal of Rousseff from office is no longer running as smoothly as it was planned. On May 5, a surprise turn of events places into question whether the move to impeach the president will actually succeed. Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki issued an injunction suspending Eduardo Cunha’s congressional mandate and removing him from the office of the President of the Chamber of Deputies. The same day the entire Supreme Court issued a concurring unanimous decision.

The Attorney General had asked for the removal of Cunha from his powerful position in the Chamber of Deputies last December. While the country was going through its worst political crisis since democracy was restored in 1985 (after twenty-one years of military rule), it took five months for a member of Brazil’s highest court to issue what is known as an “urgent judicial protection”. The purpose of the order was to avoid irreparable damage because Cunha was using his office to impede criminal investigations being conducted about him.

This delayed injunction and the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court seems to signify that Cunha should not have led the impeachment proceedings, since he had a vested interest in the process, and he tainted its impartiality. The Justices’ decision argued that Cunha abused his power to prejudice outcomes. It also mentioned the accusations against him of corruption and money laundering, obstruction of criminal investigations against him, and pressuring members of Congress not to vote against him in the Ethics Committee.

This immediately raises questions about the conduct of the Supreme Court. Why did it take so long to issue an injunction when Cunha occupied such an important and high-ranking position in the government? Why didn’t the court rule immediately on the injunction request, since all of the facts mentioned in the decision were there in December?

One of the explanations given by the Supreme Court was that the body didn’t want to interfere in another branch of the government. Yet it was a sign of Cunha’s power in the Chamber of Deputies that it required the Supreme Court to intervene to remove him from his position. It also revealed how much Cunha had compromised the legitimacy of the impeachment process, as it has become clear to many observers that the entire process has been based on his efforts to take revenge on the government and protect himself from criminal investigations.

In Brazil there is a saying that “justice can be delayed, but it doesn’t fail.” However, in this case, the Supreme Court was delayed, and it failed. It now appears that Cunha is no longer needed to ensure a parliamentary coup. He set the process in motion, and it has moved on to the Senate. Tainted by his own corruption scandal, his continued presence as a powerbroker in the Chamber of Deputies tarnished and delegitimized the proceedings, and it damaged the image of his political ally Vice President Temer, who is already choosing ministers for the new administration he intends to run.

It seems that Cunha’s removal from office will have little impact on the impeachment proceedings in the Senate, since a majority of members of that House have already made up their minds. Some of them, in fact, will feel more comfortable voting for impeachment now that Cunha is no longer associated with the process. However, given the decision of the Supreme Court that Cunha was abusing his power, the Rousseff administration has already indicated that it will request the annulment of the impeachment procedure based on the fact that Cunha presided over the process in the Chamber of Deputies. While there are strong legal basis for this argument, it is politically unlikely to be sustained, given the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to consider the merits of the impeachment charges.

Cunha’s removal from office has been a demand of many sectors of Brazilian society outraged by government corruption, and the decision will strengthen democracy in the country. But it feeds into a cynical narrative that argues, “First we get rid of Dilma and then we will get rid of the rest.” In other words, the Supreme Court has just removed one of the elements that now makes the impeachment proceedings seem to be less of an arbitrary and an illegitimate coup. The decision also improves the image of a possible future government led by Michel Temer.

 

Co-authored with Renan H. Quinalha 

EXPERT OPINION

James N. Green

The interim President of the Chamber of Deputies has just annulled the impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff, arguing that the process was flawed and should be returned to the Chamber for reconsideration. As I reported on Friday, quoting Bette Davis: "Fasten your seat belts. We in for a bumpy night." It is still not clear what the Chamber of Deputies, but it is a major setback for the golpistas.

Read more

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