After twenty hours of debate, the Brazilian Senate voted this week to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff stepped down from the presidency on Thursday and was replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer. Given the strong sentiment in favor of initiating the impeachment process (55 votes in favour out of 81) Rousseff is not likely to return to power.
There are at least three important questions arising from these events. The obvious one: how did this happen to a left/centre government that had done so much to improve social welfare? A second question pertains to the impact on Brazil’s political future—will there be a period of increasing political instability and political polarization? Finally, will the new regime’s right turn mean policies that halt or overturn the social gains of recent years, particularly achievements in the decline in poverty and in the country’s historically high levels of inequality?
Economic Crisis, Corruption, and a Failure to Satisfy Business
Faced with declining commodity prices from 2011 (oil, iron ore, soya beans, raw sugar), the Brazilian economy entered into recession in 2014, with the situation worsening steadily thereafter. Rousseff’s approval rating, which had stood at 80 percent in March of 2013, had plummeted to 10 percent by April 2016. Incumbent governments, no matter how successful they may have been, lose public support in times of economic crisis; but in the case of Brazil, the political fallout was fueled by a number of additional ingredients. One of these was the corruption scandal involving kickbacks to top Petrobras (the state-owned petroleum company) officials by contractors. Although Rousseff has not been directly implicated in this scandal (the charges against her involve violation of budgetary laws), many of her party members have been implicated. This scandal may have been unavoidable. As I indicated in an earlier blog entry, corruption is not new to the Brazilian political process and, in the case of the Workers Party administrations, became an essential ingredient in maintaining the quiescence (if not support) of a recalcitrant powerful private sector. The country’s powerful private sector (industrial, financial, and big landowners) had many reasons to be distrustful: the left of the Workers Party, particularly during its early years drew strong support from militant labor and social movements. The government’s compromises with neoliberalism, in the form of privatizations and deregulations, did not assuage the fears of these powerful economic interests or of the political right, which demanded further deregulation, labor flexibilization, and a reduction in corporate taxes. The corruption scandal presented an ideal opportunity to lodge the Rousseff regime from power.
Economic Decline and an Insecure and Angry New Middle Income Group
However, the political right could not have gained much traction without growing public disillusionment, and widespread opposition to the Rousseff administration. The recent protests, which engulfed the entire country, involved a broad cross-section of Brazilians, from the upper middle class, to the new middle class, to the newly non poor, to the critical political left, which the saw the policies supported by Rousseff’s Workers Party as a betrayal of cherished social justice ideals. Of particular importance has been the role of those with newly acquired middle- income status. While survey research has found that these people are grateful for their new level of prosperity, they are also very insecure in their new status (now more than ever given the sharp rise in unemployment), are deeply concerned about access to education and health services, inequality, government inefficiency, and corruption. Their vigorous support for the removal of the current government reflects these concerns.
Political Polarization and the Resurgence of the Right
It is also true that Rousseff retains a faithful core of supporters who have been demonstrating in her favor. Her leftist critics are not sad to see her government fall as they anticipate an opportunity to revive a radical left alternative. Hence, Brazilian politics is likely to become increasingly polarized. This process will accelerate as the current administration moves economic policy increasingly to the right. Michel Temer, a senior figure in the Brazilian center/right Democratic Movement Party, has fiscal austerity and privatization as his top priorities. He has acknowledged that there will be cuts in health and educational spending. Many among his all white male cabinet are big landowners or powerful agribusiness executives. Since Temer and many of his colleagues are also under investigation for corruption, this particular administration, however, may be short lived. Nevertheless, the turn to the political right has begun, as has increased political uncertainly. This latter will contribute further to the country’s economic challenges.