Rousseff’s Impeachment Changes the Government, Not the Politics

The last photograph of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil, taken on Jan. 1, 2011, shows him moving down the ramp of the Palácio do Planalto, like an idolized performer who dives into his audience at the end of a show, ignoring his security detail and drowning in a sea of his supporters’ hands.

Five and a half years later, Brazil’s Senate has provisionally suspended President Dilma Rousseff from office; on Wednesday she will be fully removed from the presidency. In the midst of the crumbling of the Workers’ Party, or P.T., Mr. da Silva went back to the Planalto Palace to support an embattled Ms. Rousseff. His eyes full of tears, he said to a friend, “I did not want to be part of this picture.”

The road from one image to the other has been tortuous. Ms. Rousseff presided over a steady economy for most of her first term, but miscalculated in relying on budget manipulation to sustain economic growth. Once she was re-elected, in 2014, the fiscal austerity measures that she presided over slowed an already stagnant economy. Ideological zigzagging gave ammunition to her opponents, and cost her a good number of followers who saw in her fiscal policy the neo-liberal agenda of the opposition.

Meanwhile, the jewel of Brazilian state-owned companies, Petrobras, has been marred by a corruption case in which investigators have uncovered a network of endless graft and corruption in the public service; it has shaken the political class (there are already 364 politicians under investigation). Mr. da Silva’s Workers’ Party, founded under a banner of ethics, is once again at the center of a corruption scandal (the vote buying scandal Mensalão, or “big allowance,” was the first), and this time the P.T. is dangling like a piñata for everyone to take a swing at.

Dilma Rousseff, al centro, con su vicepresidente Michel Temer y Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva durante la toma de posesión de Rousseff en Brasilia en 2011 Evaristo Sa/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
Dilma Rousseff, al centro, con su vicepresidente Michel Temer y Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva durante la toma de posesión de Rousseff en Brasilia en 2011 Evaristo Sa/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

The ousting of Ms. Rousseff and the P.T. meant that Vice President Michel Temer became acting president. Mr. Temer, the leader of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or P.M.D.B., was the top ally of the sinking government until he turned against Ms. Rousseff to head the impeachment process. However, the P.M.D.B. is no less involved in the looting of Petrobras than the other parties. A sinking economy, and outrage against corruption, set off successive and intense popular rallies that led to a change in government, but not in Brazilian politics.

Mr. Temer took over as acting president on May 12 with an all-white, all-male cabinet. The image resembles a restored picture of a seemingly distant Brazil, in sharp contrast with the diverse entourage that departed away with Ms. Rousseff, the country’s first woman president.

The new administration’s neo-liberal projects include reforms to loosen workers’ protection laws, the end of a fixed allotment of the government spending to public health and education and the fiscal tightening that Ms. Rousseff could not manage to carry through — in all, a picture in which the poorest already know very well who will be left out.

Even if the storm hasn’t completely passed, one can already see the politicians falling back into their old ways — like filling cabinet posts from among the governing coalition parties, many of which lack any clear ideology, in exchange for votes in Congress. There is not a hint of a political reform on the horizon.

After the impeachment became irrevocable, extensive social unrest, generated by anger against corruption and over 11 million unemployed Brazilians, turned into apathy that has emptied the streets. For many, the focus is no longer on troubled government politics but on their own pockets. Others agree with former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, who said of Mr. Temer in an interview that he was not his choice, but “what’s there is there!”

The lack of ideological references and the anger directed at politicians led to the rise of extremists, like Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who, in voting for impeachment, praised the head of the dictatorship’s torture centers. Brazil now has the most conservative Congress in decades. The field is wide open for more extreme characters to win in the 2018 congressional elections.

Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment process did not bring up corruption charges against her, but rather of “fiscal sidestepping,” or “pedaladas fiscais,” breaking fiscal rules to hide the real budget deficit. That was for Congress a minor issue; the argument put forth by the majority was that she has lost the aptitude to govern.

For Ms. Rousseff and her allies, impeachment is a coup attempt, a stand that generated strong reaction on the left. A Datafolha survey of Mr. Temer’s presidential approval rating shows that 49 percent of Brazilians say they believe that democracy’s rule of law has been followed during the impeachment process, while 37 percent think otherwise. Even if initial reactions have started to lapse into apathy, polling data shows a picture of a divided Brazilian society.

Unlike the 1992 resignation of President Fernando Collor, which was brought on by corruption charges and considered progress for democratic institutions, Ms. Rousseff’s exit leaves a trail of resentment. Though fractured and diminished, the P.T. is still the only genuinely popular party.

On Aug. 24, Mr. da Silva did not join Ms. Rousseff in her last act as president. He went to Mato Grosso do Sul to visit a settlement of the Landless Workers’ Movement, a group fighting for land reform. This group, together with the Unified Workers’ Central, are the P.T.’s two strongest organized movements. Returning to the social base that helped begin his political career, Mr. da Silva seems to be trying to start over.

The yellow-green jersey of the Brazilian soccer team has been an emblem for the street rallies that favor impeachment. Participants want to stress their patriotism, but the image of masses wearing a soccer team uniform also works as an allegory of sorts for the country’s situation. They act as fans who want to defeat their opponent; they had won a match, but not the tournament. The P.T. must reinvent itself; the other parties have yet to see the need to.

Carol Pires is a political reporter at Piauí magazine.

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