Late on Sunday evening, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress voted by a two to one margin in support of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the former Marxist guerrilla who has served as the country’s President since 2011.
The proceedings, conducted against the backdrop of a spiralling public debt crisis and rising unemployment, are a stunning turnaround for a President who had enjoyed approval ratings of up to 70 per cent just two years ago. The allegations she faces centre on claims that, in the run-up to the 2014 elections, money was diverted from state-owned banks into the government’s coffers in order to bolster perceptions of the strength of the country’s economy.
With impeachment proceedings having passed the lower house, the Federal Senate must now decide by simple majority whether to progress the case. If it agrees to do so – as seems almost certain – then Rousseff will be formally suspended from office for 180 days while the Senate examines the charges against her. A two-thirds vote in favour of impeachment would see the President expelled from office.
Regardless of the outcome, the country faces a profound political crisis.
While roughly 70 per cent of the public support impeachment, a sizeable proportion of the 54m people who voted for her in 2014 buy into rhetoric that the proceedings constitute a “coup” on the part of the country’s rightist forces.
In reality, the vote was fully constitutional, conducted in plain sight of the media and with the blessing of the country’s Supreme Court – a body largely comprised of nominees from Rousseff’s own Workers’ Party. Nevertheless, millions of Rousseff supporters are expected to take to the streets in the coming days, in protests that are likely to further inflame tensions between poorer Workers’ Party voters and the country’s burgeoning middle-class.
The allegations against the President aside, her supporters have a point when they argue that many of the parliamentarians sitting in judgment over Rousseff are alleged to have committed crimes far greater than her own.
The two men who have the most to gain from Rousseff’s removal, Vice-President Michel Temer and Parliament speaker Eduardo Cunha, both face serious legal challenges. The Supreme Court has already ruled that Temer must face impeachment proceedings for the same charges as Rousseff, while Cunha is accused of accepting $5m in bribes.
Other MPs casting “yes” votes included former Sao Paulo governor Paulo Maluf, who risks falling foul of an Interpol arrest warrant for money laundering if he leaves Brazil, and Nilton Capixaba, who faces charges of misappropriating public funds designated for the purchase of ambulances.
The identity of the country’s next President – most likely Temer – is arguably less important than the nascent sense of recognition among Brazil’s political elite that the country needs political and economic reform.
If polls are to be believed, Brazilians would like to see not only a new President but fresh elections. Such a move, however, would require constitutional change – a forlorn hope in such a fractious political climate.
Instead, due constitutional process is all Brazil has. That is why, for the sake of Brazil’s democracy, impeachment proceedings against Rousseff must succeed.
That means, until 2018, a “caretaker” presidency led by Temer.
On economic issues, a Temer presidency would also represent a marked improvement from the present malaise. While part of Rousseff’s coalition, his own Democratic Movement party (PMDB) is centrist in nature and had a heartening track record of supporting tighter fiscal austerity and privatisation programmes that rescued the country’s economy in the mid-90s.
While ethically challenged, Temer is an able man and a consummate deal-maker. The vote he and his supporters orchestrated to oust Rousseff relied upon cross-party consensus – just as he would have to in government to secure his own position and avoid a further constitutional crisis.
With protests massing on the streets and a powder keg of class divisions set to explode at any time, Brazil could do a lot worse than having a creature of compromise and moderation at its helm.