Brazil: What Next?


2016-09-08 By Kenneth Maxwell

On August 31 Dilma Rousseff was impeached by the Brazilian senate.

The vote was 61 to 20 to convict her for violating budget and fiscal responsibility laws.

The outcome was unambiguous.

Yet the Chief Justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court, Ricardo Lewandowski, who presided over the senate impeachment trial, unexpectedly introduced a second vote on removing Dilma Rousseff’s political rights for eight years. 

The Senate then voted by 42 to 36 that these political rights should not be removed.

It was an unanticipated interpretation of the Brazilian constitution.

And it caused immediate confusion and suspicions of back room deals.

Lewandowski was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Lula da SIlva, and some commentators in Brasilia were suspicious that Lewandowski, together with Renan Calheiros, the president of the senate, and many politicians caught up in the anti corruption “Lava Jato” (“car wash”)  investigation of federal judge Sergio Moro, were thinking of creating a precedent for softer penalties.

And the second vote set of a new round of appeals to the Supreme Court, led by Fernando Holiday, on behalf of the “Movimento Brasil Livre” ( Brazil Free Movement ), which was one of the principal organisations promoting Dilma’s impeachment.

They now called for Lewandowski’s impeachment, as well as the impeachment of Renan Calheiros.

In all 10 appeals have been filed with the Supreme Court, the strongest from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and former PT senator Delcidio do Amaral, expelled from the senate, has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate his eligibility for public office.

Lewandowski will be succeed as president of the Supreme Court on the 10th September by  Supreme Court justice Carmen Lucia, who has a reputation for toughness and has little tolerance for corruption. Dilma, meanwhile, has the right to remain in the presidential residence, the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, for thirty days. But she decided to leave on Tuesday afternoon for Porto Alegre. She will later apparently move to an Ipanema beach-front apartment in Rio de Janeiro.

The Supreme Court could still declare Dilma ineligible to hold public office.

The circle around Temer certainly hopes so. Though Temer, the constitutionalist scholar, had argued that two penalties in a case of impeachment were in fact constitutional. But that was some time ago in his text book.

And it was in theory.

On the day the senate voted to impeach Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer, who has been acting president, was inaugurated in the senate chamber as the new president of Brazil.

He will serve in theory until the next presidential election scheduled in two years time. President Temer then left for Hangzhou, China, for the meeting of the G-20. Rodrigo Maia, the president of the lower house of of Congress became president during Temer’s week-long absence, as is the Brazilian tradition.

In fact Brazil had three presidents in one day: outgoing president Dilma, incoming president Michel Temer, and acting president Rodrigo Maia. Protests against Temer (“fora Temer” ) erupted over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo and in other Brazilian cities.

The demonstrations on the Avenida Paulista in São Paulo were initially banned by Geraldo Alckmin, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) governor of the state.  There had been violent attacks on bank branches in the downtown São Paulo by anarchist “black blocs.”

Hangzhou:Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, South African President Jacob Zuma and Brazilian President Michel Temer posing for a group photo before the BRICS meeting in Hangzhou, China. PTI Photo
Hangzhou:Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, South African President Jacob Zuma and Brazilian President Michel Temer posing for a group photo before the BRICS meeting in Hangzhou, China. PTI Photo

In China, Michel Temer, said that the pro-Dilma demonstrators were “a handful of car wreckers” which provoked a massive demonstration of 100,000 on the Avenida Paulista.

The  anti-Temer demonstrators revived the demand for “Diretas Já” (direct elections now), a battle cry of huge demonstrations against the military government in 1984. The situation on the streets of São Paulo was aggravated by the violent reaction of the military police which attacked peaceful demonstrators. Images were quickly and widely circulated on social media. Brazil after all has the second largest number of users of Facebook in the world.

President Temer returned to Brazil from China in time to attend the 7th of September Brazilian Independence Day celebrations in Brasilia before flying to Rio for the opening of the Paralympic Games.

He is unlikely to receive a warm reception at either event.

He remains deeply unpopular.

The latest opinion polling show him with only 8% to 19% approval ratings in Brazil’s major cities. In Rio he has 12% of those polled thinking he is “excellent” or “good” and 42% thinking he is “bad” or “péssimo”.

In São Paulo 13%  think he is excellent or good, and 41% believe he is bad or useless.  In Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state, 13% approve of him while 47% rejected him.

Temer is a 75 year old “paulista.”

Both former Worker’s Party (PT) president Lula, and former Brazilian Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), are also São Paulo-based politicians, though both had their origins elsewhere. Lula came from the poor backlands of the North Eastern Brazil. FHC is originally from Rio de Janeiro.

But they each made their political career in São Paulo, which is Brazil’s financial and industrial capital. The city’s population is expected to reach 12 million next year.

Dilma, on the other hand was originally from the south central inland state of Minas Gerais, though she had made her political career in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Michel Temer is a constitutional law professor and a long term politician and a member of the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), which is a centrist coalition of regional bosses that has been a permanent and critical bloc in Congress since the end of military rule in 1985, supporting whoever was in power, but prepared to shift sides as the winds political sentiment have moved over time.

The PMDB supported the PSDB of FHC during his two terms as president, and then supported Lula and the PT during his two terms. And the PMDB then provided Temer as the Vice President for president Dilma.  Previously Temer had been three times elected president of the lower house of congress.

He is a man who knows the intricacies, the betrayals, and the deals which grease the wheels of the political system in Brasilia.

In this sense Temer is infinitely better prepared than Dilma was to work within the system.

Dilma, who had never been elected before she was chosen by Lula to become the PT’s presidential candidate, dramatically and fatally lost the support of congress, and then lost the presidency, when the former speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, organised the campaign, that led to the vote in the lower house, which began the process that ended in her impeachment by the senate.

Eduardo Cunha although now “afastado” (removed from office) on corruption accusations, is a determined and unscrupulous operator, and a skilled long term denizen of the murky backrooms of Brazilian politics, and he still has many “friends” and “allies” in the lower house, and he has not yet been definitively removed from office. Like Michel Temer, he knows where the bodies are buried, and he will not hesitate to use this knowledge in his own defence. Cunha’s allies are attempting to preserve his political rights.

If the House of Representatives votes against him by a majority he will not be eligible to hold office for eight years.

While there is now some political clarity in Brazil, and Temer is now the president, the political circus in Brasilia is far from over.

The PT has been removed from power after 13 years in government, but the legitimacy of the new government is contested on the streets, and by the PT, as well as by many union members, intellectuals and artists, as well as by powerful “social” movements, which have been relatively quiet during the years of PT rule but can still provide serious opposition on the streets and in the countryside.

And the economic and financial crisis continues.

The Brazilian economy declined by 4.6% in the first semester of 2016 in relation to the year before, and Brazil still faces its most profound recession in almost 50 years. And already inflation is impacting the poor much more than the rich. For those with 1 to 2.5 minimum salaries, inflation rose to 9.29% in August. The average rise was 8.48%.

And the corruption scandals have not gone away either.

Petrobras-related cases continue. There is a major new investigation of state and private pension funds (“operation greenfield”) where the federal police have already seized thousand of dollars, euros, works of art and luxury automobiles. The federal prosecutors are investigating JBS, the greatest meat processor in the world.

And renewed investigations are underway into bribes paid in the São Paulo metro and the World Cup stadium in Bahia involving the construction company OAS.

But policy changes are already profound. 

The PT alliance of left wing South American regimes is in tatters. Cuba, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, have all recalled their ambassadors, and Foreign Minister José Serra has made his views abundantly clear about the regime in Venezuela. His relationships with Brazil’s partners in Mercosul have been difficult.

And a diplomatic revolution is underway in South America with an closer ties with Peru, Columbia, and with Argentina under president Mauricio Macri.

Michel Temer met with the leaders of the BRICS on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in China and he is due to attend the next summit of the BRICS in India, but it is unlikely that Temer (and most particularly Serra) will be as enthusiastic as Lula or Dilma were for the putative alliance of developing world powers. 

But the China-Brazil relationship is more complicated.

China is Brazilian largest trading partner.

And while president Temer was in China, Chinese state grid corporation agreed to a US$1.8 billion purchase of a 23.6% stake in CPFL Energia, and is expected to take a majority control of Brazil’s largest private electric sector company.

This CPFL deal was one of nine corporate deals between companies that were signed during the Temer visit. Ironically, the CPFL deal arises from the consequences of the Lava Jato investigation into corruption at Camargo Corrêa, one of the electricity company’s main shareholders.

The political horizon in Brazil, however, remains very clouded.

The “tucanos” as the PSDB are called after the Brazilian bird, have three major figures in competition for the next presidential campaign: Geraldo Alckmin, the governor of São Paulo, senator Aécio Neves, former governor of Minas Gerais, and foreign minister José Serra, former governor of São Paulo.

All three are former presidential candidates. Dilma Rousseff allegedly called Temer a “Decorative” Vice President.  He certainly now has a decorative “First Lady” in Marcela Temer, 42 years his junior, and who has esconced on a third floor office close to his own in the Planalto Presidential palace  in Brasilia, where she will run a new “happy child” program.

The Brazilian literary magazine “Piaui”  summed up the new Brazilian regime succinctly on its September cover. It showed a happy president Temer, dressed in the presidential sash, arriving home at the family cottage, to be greeted by his young son, and by his smiling wife. She is standing on the cottage doorstep wearing apron embroidered with the logo “Lar, Doce Lar” (“Home sweet Home”).

But overall very deep divisions remain in Brazil.

There has long been a visceral hostility to the PT among the middle class in Brazil.

And it has only been aggravated by the corruption scandals and the economic recession. The PT and its acolytes are no less hostile to those they believe robbed them unfairly of the presidency in a legalistic and constitutional coup.

Someone is supposed to have said you should not get what you wish for.

Temer and his acolytes will have their work cut out for themselves now they have inherited the Brazilian mess.

And they will have no one else to blame for it now but themselves.