There’s less than four months to go before the Olympic opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, but in Brazil, the Games have become a minor talking point. On 17 April, as 73 per cent of the lower house of congress voted in favour of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the president’s Workers’ Party (PT) watched the ground rush up to meet it.
A vote in the upper house, expected to take place in May, is still required to approve the impeachment of Rousseff, whose popularity has fallen to 10 per cent. She has been under sustained attack since her re-election in 2014, succeeding Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – Rousseff’s sometime mentor, adviser and minister without portfolio – who also served two terms, from 2003 to the beginning of 2011.
Although initially she was popular, President Rousseff began to suffer criticism in congress and in the press as Brazil’s rising status among the world’s foremost economies went into reverse.
The PT’s centre-left model, which includes an ambitious social housing programme and benefits for the poorest, was funded by oil and a commodities boom that began in the mid-2000s. Brazil slipped into recession in 2015, however, and is being shaken by a cross-party corruption investigation known as Lava Jato (“carwash”). Several high-ranking PT members have been arrested, as have executives and politicians from other parties, implicated in millions of pounds’ worth of kickbacks and bribes that involve Petrobras, the state oil company.
Rousseff was an easier target for the PT’s enemies than Lula, who is a formidable political operator. By September 2015 she had been the subject of 37 requests for impeachment. The motion now heading for the senate accuses the president of fiscal manoeuvres to conceal gaps in the budget in the run-up to her re-election. Rousseff argues that the same accounting trick has been employed by national and state governments for years and that the ploy does not amount to the “high crime and misdemeanour” that her impeachment requires.
Yet this barely seems to matter to the millions of angry, middle-class Brazilians who have taken to the streets since the first major pro-impeachment protest took place in November 2014. The protesters’ explanations for their intense hatred of Rousseff, Lula and the PT range from corruption, incompetence and economic mismanagement to accusations of covert communism and even Satanism. What unites them is their desire to see the PT removed from power.
“People are being duped,” says Jean Wyllys, a member of congress for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). “They took to the streets to fight corruption. It’s a pity they haven’t realised that the people running this impeachment are corrupt.”
Vice-President Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) – until recently the PT’s main coalition ally – will become the interim president if the senate moves to impeach. His party has been accused of the same fiscal wrongdoing as Rousseff’s; a former government senator also accused him of participating in an illegal scheme involving the purchase of large quantities of ethanol. (Temer denies the allegations.) Meanwhile, the speaker of the house, Eduardo Cunha, Rousseff’s greatest rival, is accused of receiving bribes, money-laundering and perjury. He is alleged to have lied to congress about multiple undeclared Swiss bank accounts, and would become Temer’s vice-president.
President Rousseff is one of an elite group of politicians who have never been accused of illegalities or improprieties for personal gain. Nonetheless, the PT, like much of the Brazilian political class, is seen as irredeemably corrupt. In a plea-bargain testimony, a former president of the construction giant Andrade Gutierrez accused the party of taking kickbacks on some of the country’s foremost building projects, including the World Cup stadiums, the Angra 3 nuclear power station and Belo Monte, a hydroelectric mega-dam being built in the heart of the Amazon.
For some Brazilians, anyone is better than Rousseff. “Temer is ridiculous,” said Karol Dias, aged 27, speaking on Rua Oscar Freire in São Paulo. “I don’t trust him or Cunha but I’d rather have Temer than two more years of stagnation under Dilma.”
There may be another way. Senior PT officials recently proposed that Rousseff could introduce a constitutional amendment allowing her to resign, followed by fresh presidential elections later in the year. Rousseff has insisted that she will not resign but, confronted with a choice between elections and being deposed, she may well opt for the former.
But this is something the PMDB would like to avoid at all costs and the party appears willing to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that elections are not held. In his plea-bargain testimony, the former Andrade Gutierrez executive also alleged that his company had made illegal, indirect contributions to pay off Rousseff’s 2014 campaign debts. If proven, the undeclared donations would be grounds for the annulment of Rousseff’s 2014 victory and for another round of elections. Yet the PMDB, like the many other parties massed against the PT, has failed to seize on the allegations as a quick and easy means to oust the president.
There are various reasons for this. As her vice-presidential running mate, Temer, too, would fall. Even if he somehow managed to dodge the bullet, his projected approval as a presidential candidate in an election hovers around 1 per cent. The widely vilified Cunha is also considered unelectable.
A survey released on 9 April by the pollsters Datafolha raised an interesting possibility should new elections take place: according to current voting intentions, Lula leads the pack for the scheduled race in 2018, neck and neck with the former presidential candidate Marina Silva of the Sustainability Network party. A return to power appears unlikely for Lula at present – but in 2014, Brazil seemed unlikely to experience almost every recent development in the political farce that now has the country gripped for all the wrong reasons.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater