Why is Brazil once again plunged into political chaos?
Less than a year ago, President Dilma Rousseff was dismissed and ousted from office amid a whirlwind of allegations of financial irregularities. Now, his successor, Michel Temer, also sees his presidency in jeopardy.
The recently surfaced tapes appear to capture Mr Temer, who was already under investigation for corruption, approving bribes paid to a lawmaker who has been jailed for corruption. Many now believe he will also face impeachment.
On Wednesday, Temer deployed soldiers to the streets of the capital, Brasilia, after clashes between thousands of protesters and police. Although the defense minister said the troops were sent simply to “restore order”, many saw the move as a sign of deep insecurity on the part of an already weak government.
Political science suggests that this is an example of how “islands of honesty” in corrupt systems – such as independent prosecutors and courts with the will and authority to enforce the state. of law – can conflict with entrenched networks of corruption, provoking and spoiling the efforts of political elites to protect themselves.
And as honest and corrupt forces fight against each other, their clashes can have unpredictable effects on the political system.
Impeachment, but with a wink
“We have to make a pact,” Romero Jucá, an influential lawmaker, told Sergio Machado, a former executive of an oil company subsidiary Petrobras, in March 2016, as the two discussed the need to replace Ms. Rousseff to protect himself and others from accusations of corruption.
It was a good choice of words. In political science, a “peaceful transition” is a transition in which members of the elite, often within the government or its circle of allies, join the opposition to replace a president or a regime, in hope to protect their own interests. The term is generally used to explain how an authoritarian regime transitions to democracy, but it also offers a useful explanation of how impeachments work in democratic systems.
In Brazil, opposition politicians and other elites, including Mr. Machado and Mr. Jucá, cooperated to impeach Ms. Rousseff in August.
Many analysts believe the charges against her – violating budget laws by borrowing from a state bank to cover up a deficit – were minor.
“Several games were played with the impeachment of Dilma,” said Ken Roberts, a political scientist at Cornell University who studies Latin America. “In any impeachment, there are political and partisan interests. It is never strictly a legal question.
Some politicians saw the impeachment as an opportunity to force Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ Party out of power, he said. But others seem to have believed that a new government would shut down a corruption investigation that involved much of Brazil’s political and economic elite, and which Ms Rousseff had refused to block.
Corruption depends on a “balance,” wrote political economist Miriam Golden and economist Ray Fisman. People pay or take bribes because they think everyone is doing it. As a result, the transplant can quickly spread through a system like metastasized cancer, taking root in political institutions.
But when prosecutors or judges gain enough independence to investigate and prosecute corruption, widespread corruption suddenly becomes widespread vulnerability, creating an incentive for politicians to take drastic measures to protect themselves.
In Brazil, some politicians seem to have seen Ms Rousseff’s ousting as such a drastic but necessary step. In their recorded conversation, Mr Machado told Mr Jucá that he wanted to see ‘Dilma’s departure’, saying Mr Temer ‘would form a government of national unity, make a major deal, protect Lula and protect everything. the world. “
“This country would become calm again,” he added.
How spoilers can undermine a pact
But so-called pacified transitions can be vulnerable. If powerful institutions or constituencies do not adhere to the terms of the pact, they can act as saboteurs, leaving the new government weak.
The politicians who pushed for Ms Rousseff’s impeachment appear to have mistakenly assumed that the powerful prosecutor’s office and the judiciary would do the trick and that a Temer government would be able to shut down or limit the corruption investigation.
This does not happen. Corruption prosecutions continued under Mr Temer ‘s chairmanship and focused on some of the most powerful people in the country.
Eduardo Cunha, former president of the lower house of Congress and key architect of Ms Rousseff’s impeachment, was convicted of corruption and money laundering in March and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva faces several criminal charges.
The Brazilian audience may have been a big spoiler as well. The new government was unpopular from the start, said Amy Erica Smith, a professor at Iowa State University who studies Brazil. “Temer arrived, and from day one he was underwater in terms of popularity.”
Mass support is crucial for a successful transition, said Tom Pepinsky, a professor at Cornell who studies authoritarianism and regime change. In countries where these transitions have been successful, public support has given the new government the authority to govern, which in turn helps institutions become stronger and more stable.
But if the public opposes the transition, Pepinsky said, the power and authority of government is undermined.
How strong institutions can undermine stability
The outcry against Mr. Temer suggests that the public will not tolerate political corruption, and that the legal system is strong enough to spot wrongdoing.
But experts fear that each round of allegations, lawsuits and impeachment will ultimately weaken the political system and diminish public confidence. This makes it more difficult for the country’s political institutions to regain credibility and maintain stability.
In other countries, similar situations have turned out to be an opportunity for populist leaders who promise to throw away the whole faulty system and start over.
Experts who have followed the crisis in Brazil have repeatedly come back to the same example – Italy’s “clean hands” investigation in the 1990s. There, a series of lawsuits uprooted the corruption networks, cleaning up the Political system.
“But in doing so, the party system that was the anchor of democratic rule in the post-war period practically collapsed,” Mr. Roberts said. “You end up with a political vacuum which is filled by a populist foreigner in Berlusconi. “
And in Venezuela, a series of corruption scandals have undermined public confidence in the government, opening up space for Hugo Chávez’s populism. Over time, Mr. Chávez has undermined government institutions and concentrated his own power, setting the country on the path of authoritarianism and the economic crisis it faces today.
Brazil is likely to experience a similar outcome. “I’m really worried that by cleaning it up, the whole system will collapse,” Mr. Roberts said. “I really fear what a Brazilian Berlusconi is going to look like.”
Ms Smith concurred: “It’s a house of cards. If enough cards are weak, it is impossible to sustain.