The crisis that Brazil is facing today is the culmination of political conflicts that have been building since mid-2013.
The Brazilian senate has voted for Dilma Rousseff to be suspended from the presidency and begin her impeachment trial. Rousseff has called the process a “coup”, denying the charges against her.
The main basis for the impeachment is her alleged use of a campaign financing trick considered to be illegal, although previous administrations have used it unquestioningly. The political fact is that the president could no longer form a majority in parliament and she has had to face huge protests calling for her impeachment.
Never mind that the impeachment process was led by the president of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, who is known to have secret accounts abroad and who is being investigated for involvement in high corruption. As soon as Cunha had done his job in starting the impeachment, the Supreme Court removed him from his duties.
The senate vote that confirmed the impeachment was likewise led by a politician who faces corruption charges, Renan Calheiros, a former supporter of the government.
The end of an era
While the debate in the senate went on for more than 20 hours, the suspension was the culmination of political conflicts that have been building since mid-2013.
These troubles followed ten years of relative social peace. During this period, there was an implicit pact in the nation around a programme of national development led by the state, which sought to articulate the interests of national business sectors to workers, especially the poorest. A kind of mass capitalism flourished, largely thanks to an injection of consumer credit by the government, giving access to consumer goods to sectors of the population hitherto excluded, even if no deep socialising economic reform was carried out.
Living conditions generally improved and a relative reduction of social inequalities took place in parallel to enormous entrepreneurial gains. The social pact lasted as long as Brazilian exports were highly valued, and the global financial crisis had not reached the country. When it did, the model of high public spending and social integration by consumption of goods collapsed.
The end of this era was visible in the last presidential elections and the recent street demonstrations. Rousseff was re-elected in a fierce campaign in 2014, by a small margin of votes, on a centre-left platform defending social achievements and refusing neo-liberal measures.
That changed when the economy suffered further. Austerity measures, led by then-finance minister Joaquim Levy, left electors felt betrayed. Nor did Rousseff manage to convince the opposition, which was always looking for an excuse to impeach her. Now Brazil faces one of its deepest recessions ever.
An illicit gains scheme where companies collude with politicians has long been a tradition in Brazilian politics.
In the early 2000s, opposition politicians were given bribes to vote for government legislation, a process known as “mensalão”, which led to the conviction of several figures. The social pact and the economy, however, were so strong that the Workers’ Party survived the scandal.
Without proposing political reform that would limit private funding of political campaigns, the Workers’ Party went on to benefit from the resources of private contractors who were suppliers for the state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. This latest scandal has already led to 93 politicians and important business leaders being sent to prison.
The party’s opponents in Congress and the judiciary have been exploiting this fact to exhaustion, with wide coverage in the mainstream media, itself concentrated in the hands of six families. They present corruption problems as if they exist mainly in the federal government and the Worker’s Party, with less emphasis on scandals involving other parties and administration.
The march of the right
Realising the advancement of the right and extreme right – represented in Congress by the benches of “the bible” (evangelicals), “the cattle” (large landowners) and “the bullet” (advocates of police repression) – the left has staged significant street demonstrations for democracy and against Rousseff’s impeachment (“against the coup”), even if many of its sectors are critical of the government.
Vice-president Michel Temer, from the Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), who recently broke with the government, has assumed the presidency temporarily after the senate. Rousseff will have up to six months to prove her innocence and come back to office, which is unlikely to happen.
One may ask if Temer will have legitimacy, since he is also implicated in the Petrobras scandal. He has also faced charges of violating campaign finances. But Congress is unwilling to extend to the vice-president the impeachment process.
After all, the conservative majority of the parliament and the press supports him, blaming only Rousseff and her party for the crisis. They are eager to implement economic reforms with a strong market focus, which include heavy cuts in public spending. That will be hard to swallow for the majority of the population, whose reaction is still uncertain. The smell of a disguised police state is in the air.
Marcelo Ridenti is Professor of Sociology at Universidade Estadual de Campinas.