Impeachment: Solving or Creating Problems?

It’s official. Brazil’s lower house of Congress voted on 17 April to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, 367 to 137. Tensions in the country are so high the police built a temporary metal wall to separate protestors outside the government building. The scandal surrounding Brazil’s government, the state-run oil company, Petrobras, and Rousseff’s possible tampering with the country’s finances have been in the news non-stop. If you are not completely up-to-date, refer to Katarina Rebello’s piece in the Foreign Affairs Review on the situation.

Image courtesy of Senado Federal, © 2015, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Senado Federal, © 2015, some rights reserved.

Now that the first step towards Rousseff’s removal from office has been taken, many might assume that order will be restored and that the Latin American country is moving in the right direction. However, this may not be the case. First, let us consider the process of impeachment in Brazil. The lower house has voted to impeach Rousseff, but that does not mean she is now unemployed. Hearings will begin in the Senate, where members have to vote whether to actually remove her from office. If the Senate does not come to a conclusion within 180 days or if a two-thirds majority does not vote the affirmative, Rousseff will resume her presidency. And there are a lot of ifs in those statements. The first step has been taken, but a lengthy process still awaits Brazil and its people.

Now, if Rousseff is removed from office (which would require a majority vote in the Senate), who would take over? Vice-President Michel Temer is next in line, however he is facing possible imprisonment for the same issues as Rousseff. Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker of the lower house, would be the next candidate, but he is currently under scrutiny regarding accusations of accepting millions in bribes. Further down the leadership ladder is Renan Calheiros, head of Brazil’s Senate, however he is also under investigation for corruption regarding the Petrobras scandal. Superficially it might seem beneficial for Brazil’s Senate to proceed with the impeachment. A new leader could provide a fresh start à la Ford after the resignation of Nixon after the Watergate scandal. But are the people next in line any less controversial?

The alternative is if a majority of the Senate does not vote yes, Rousseff will resume her work as president. As of 17 April, only 61 per cent of Brazilians support her impeachment, which is down from 68 per cent in March. So, less people are in favour of her removal and this figure could change even more over the course of the Senate’s hearings. By the end of a long, drawn-out political battle Brazilians might prefer a return to normality with Rousseff back in office. For example, many of her supporters (and indeed, Rousseff herself) are claiming the impeachment vote is a ‘coup against democracy’ insinuating that a democratically elected leader is being forced out with no legitimate cause.

It is important to consider how Rousseff would function in office after such a scandal. Another high-profile impeachment case, which did not fully complete the removal process, is that of US President Bill Clinton. On 19 December 1998 the US House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton for perjury and the obstruction of justice. While the Senate eventually did not remove Clinton from the presidency, this scandal tainted him for the rest of his tenure and has haunted his family ever since. For example, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has repeatedly come up against reminders of her husband’s shame. More important though, is whether Clinton’s presidency was tarnished by his impeachment and then ultimate acquittal. His popularity ratings were over 60 per cent at the time and many felt he was under attack from Republicans in Congress. Those circumstances helped buoy his last few years in office, but it seems doubtful Rousseff will experience that type of public support.

Perhaps Rousseff’s future will play out more like that of US President Nixon. After the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up, the House Judiciary Committee passed one article of impeachment against Nixon in July of 1974. Nixon resigned a few weeks later before any action was actually taken against him. It was an unbelievably difficult time in America and especially within the US government. When Ford became president, he pardoned Nixon, hoping to help the country heal and move past the scandal as opposed to dwelling on it. The plan backfired, and many bitterly resented Ford for not forcing Nixon to repent for his errors. However, Brazil is not in the same position as the US was at that time. Ford was an able leader and his rise to power was scandal-free. That is not the case now, as all the issues surrounding the successors to power clearly demonstrate.

Brazil has impeached a president before. In 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached for corruption. Similar to Nixon, Collor de Mello resigned before the Senate actually voted to remove him from power. Like today’s environment, hundreds of thousands of people protested Collor de Mello and called for his impeachment. And, in keeping with the crazy environment of today, the issues surrounding Collor de Mello were brought to light by his own brother–pure soap opera gold.

Obviously, this is not Brazil’s first experience with scandal and unfortunately for its citizens, politicians here still seem to not focus entirely on them and their best interests. Raul Juste Lores, the editor of a leading Brazilian newspaper, said ‘people are fed up with the mismanagement and economic mistakes of Dilma, and the corruption and arrogance of the Workers’ Party, but no one feels any optimism for what might come next.’

Brazil and its people deserve better. It should not be commonplace for politicians to be corrupt or have such gossip surround them. However, even more unfortunate is that political scandals are not unique to Brazil, but are a global affliction (see the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, etc. for further information). Whether Rousseff will actually be removed from power or not remains to be seen. Impeachment is a tricky case to navigate and hopefully the people of Brazil get a capable, truthful leader who represents and protects their interests.  

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