With the 2016 Summer Olympics headed to Rio de Janeiro in August, all eyes will be on Brazil. By then, President Dilma Rousseff may not be among the crowds.
After a year of political rumblings and calls for impeachment, Brazilian congress members have delivered on their promises. In March 2016, the National Congress of Brazil reopened impeachment proceedings against current president, Dilma Rousseff.
It remains to be seen whether the motion for impeachment is legally warranted, but the political message is clear: Rousseff must go.
What Went Wrong
Following her election in 2010, Dilma Rousseff was widely hailed as a steadfast leader who would eradicate endemic poverty and usher Brazil into a new phase of economic development. Rousseff, the first woman to serve as president in Brazil, polled at 56 per cent of the vote in 2010 and enjoyed tremendous popular support during her first term as president. After narrowly winning re-election in 2014, the Brazilian people turned their backs against Rousseff. Once referred to as Brazil’s ‘Iron Lady’, Dilma Rousseff has recently faced criticism for her political weakness and her failure to reinvigorate the Brazilian economy during a prolonged recession. Despite efforts to bring millions out of poverty with a series of unprecedented social welfare reforms known as the Bolsa Familia program, Rousseff has been unable to combat rising unemployment and inequality in the face of continued economic strain. Many have also criticized the government’s backing of events such as the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, which have pushed the Brazilian economy further into a recession. The president has struggled to find effective solutions for Brazil since re-election, but these challenges are hardly cause for impeachment.
Political unrest in Brazil is the result of a more explicit issue: the Petrobras scandal. Referred to as Lava Jato or ‘Operation Car Wash’, Brazilian authorities have uncovered a major corruption scandal within the state-backed oil giant, Petrobras. According to reports, executives within Petrobras allegedly bribed politicians for contracts, making payments with company profits. Several senior politicians have been implicated, including President Dilma Rousseff, who previously headed the Petrobras board of directors. While the President has denied having any knowledge about corruption, Rousseff and other party elites remain entwined in the scandal, fueling continued frustration and political dissent across the country.
What to Expect
Members of the National Congress of Brazil have gathered enough support to motion for impeachment proceedings, but the likelihood that Rousseff will be forced to resign is uncertain. For impeachment to happen, two-thirds of Congress must vote in favor of impeaching Rousseff. If this occurs, then a formal trial will be held and Rousseff will step down as president, entrusting leadership to current Vice President Michel Temer.
While prospects of impeachment have seemed increasingly plausible over the past several weeks, experts agree that—on a strictly legal basis—the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff would be unwarranted. The president has made several missteps in office, however, indications of her involvement in the Petrobras scandal remain unsubstantiated and largely politicized. Rousseff herself has publicly claimed that she ‘committed no irregularity’ and was unaware of the corruption scheme.
Since the scandal emerged in 2014, Rousseff has evaded legal proceedings, frequently reminding the Brazilian people of her distance from the situation. Recently, however, the president dirtied her own hands during a suspicious political move in March 2016. Rousseff appointed former Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva–a politician currently under investigation for his involvement with Lava Jato—as her new chief of staff. Many viewed this choice as an attempt to protect Lula and shield him from prosecution. In light of these misgivings, the Brazilian judiciary struck down the president’s political maneuver, overturning the cabinet appointment. While Rousseff’s actions are not alone incriminating, concerns of corruption have added to the firestorm surrounding her impeachment proceedings.
Asking the Improbable
According to a recent study, Rousseff’s public approval ratings have dropped from a peak of 65 per cent in March 2013 to a meager 11 per cent in February 2016. On Sunday 13 March 2016, millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against Rousseff, demanding her resignation from office. While many voices within the international community have sought to play down the risk of her impeachment, the scenario should no longer be ignored.
Dilma Rousseff may be pushed out of office regardless of her involvement in the Petrobras scandal. In some ways, this could be problematic for the stability and standing of Brazilian democracy, as popular opinion and national polls would appear to override democratic due process. In other ways, the departure of Rousseff could pave the way for desperately needed change in Brazilian government, restoring the confidence of Brazilian citizens and the international community.
The Petrobras scandal and impeachment proceedings have effectively stalled forward progress within Brazil, distracting the government from more important social and economic issues. Rather than subjecting her country to continued political turmoil, Dilma Rousseff could also choose to call for new elections and step down as president. In doing so, Rousseff would minimize instability and leave on her own terms, allowing Brazil to refocus on rebuilding its economy as well as its political standing. Although Rousseff’s resignation would not resolve the fundamental challenges facing Brazil, the country would benefit from a fresh round of elections and the chance for a ‘clean slate’.
This scenario is highly unlikely but worth considering. Dilma Rousseff will, more likely than not, continue to stand firmly and endure the impeachment proceedings. She has declared that she ‘will never resign’, likening congressional actions to a ‘coup attempt’. Rather than succumb to political pressures, Rousseff has chosen to place her confidence in the democratic process.
As it stands, the future of Brazil and that of its president hang in the balance. Dilma Rousseff may emerge victoriously from the impeachment proceedings, but it is certain that her political reputation will not.