Policy Alert: Rousseff Under Siege – Rising Powers Debate Brazil’s Future
Brazil’s Senate voted earlier this month to suspend President Dilma Rousseff while she awaits a trial to determine if corruption charges will result in her impeachment. Rousseff called the move a “coup” and vowed to fight the charges. Interim President Michel Temer now has to weather this political turmoil amid the on-going Zika virus outbreak, an economic recession, and preparations for the Summer Olympics just months away. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from Brazil, India, China, Russia, and Japan on the South America powerhouse’s future.
On May 12, the Brazilian Senate voted 55-22 in favor of trying President Dilma Rousseff for impeachment for using accounting tricks to improve the 2014 budget outlook (pedaladas, in Portuguese) in violation of budgetary laws. This followed a 367-137 vote in the Chamber of Deputies on April 17. As a result, Rousseff is suspended from office for 180 days while she is tried in the Senate. An interim government will take her place either until she returns to office in the unlikely event she is not convicted in the Senate, or until the end of her term in 2018.
The interim president, Michel Temer, had been Dilma’s vice president though he is a member of the PMDB, which was the former coalition partner that spearheaded the impeachment process against her. Public opinion and several media outlets remain sharply against Temer.
- The temporary leader is unpopular with Brazilians in general, with polls indicating he would receive a scant two percent of the vote in the first round of a presidential election. While Brazilians overwhelmingly supported impeaching Dilma, a similarly large majority of 58 percent also want Michel Temer impeached.
- Moreover, Temer has been implicated by witnesses in the Lava Jato investigation, though he is currently not under investigation, and is ineligible to run for office for eight years as punishment for breaking campaign finance laws, though this does not affect his ability to assume the presidency.
- The mostly-white, all-male composition of Temer’s cabinet immediately drew harsh criticism both within and outside of Brazil as it was interpreted by many as a sign that Temer’s government will be a throwback to previous governments that were far less representative of Brazil’s diversity.
- The cabinet came under further scrutiny as it came out that at least five are currently under investigation under the massive Lava Jato corruption investigation that played a large, if technically indirect role in Rousseff’s impeachment and that one member was even under investigation for his role in an attempted murder.
Dilma Rousseff has labeled the impeachment process against her a “coup” and has frequently pointed out that, unlike many of those voting to impeach her that are under investigation or even indictment for corruption, she has not even been implicated.
- In a speech outside the Planalto the day after the Senate vote, Rousseff vowed to use all her legal recourse to fight her impeachment and declared that “I might have committed errors, but I did not commit any crimes.”
- Conforming to the “coup” narrative, Eduardo Cunha, former Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and leader of the impeachment process, was removed from office by the Supreme Court less than two weeks after the vote in the Chamber of Deputies when he was indicted on corruption charges. Cunha had been an ally of Rousseff’s government, but initiated the impeachment process within hours of the vote against him.
- On Monday, news broke in Brazil of recording made in March by Sérgio Machado, a former government official currently negotiating a plea bargain for his role in Lava Jato, of Romero Jacá, the new planning minister and a senator who voted to impeach Rousseff, promising that impeachment would lead to a “change” in the government and a “national pact” that would “stop the bleeding.” This has been widely interpreted to referring to using impeachment as a means to stop the Lava Jato investigations.
- This will likely set off a firestorm as polls show that 66 percent of Brazilians believe that the Lava Jato investigations are positive and 77 percent believe that other parties are responsible than just Rousseff’s Workers Party (PT). For his part, Michel Temer has promised to let the Lava Jato investigations continue.
India and Brazil are emerging economies with close trade and political ties since the 1960s that have worked together in associations such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) group, and Brazil-South Africa-India-China (BASIC).
Several media outlets harshly criticized Rousseff’s ousting and doubted the move would solve any of the country’s mounting challenges.
- The Hindu called the impeachment “a coup by another name” and worried the political crisis occurred “at time when the country needs a stable administration to cope with the enormous” economic and corruption challenges. The paper had several problems with the impeachment charges, but reluctantly urged Brazil to hold “fresh elections” to find a president with a clear mandate to address the country’s real issues.
- Stanly Johny, The Hindu’s international affairs editor, said the impeachment vote “is unlikely to solve any of the problems Brazil is now facing.”
- Krishnan Srinivasan, former Indian foreign secretary, co-authored an op-ed lamenting how Brazil’s “highly partisan” and illegitimate political crisis has been “damaging” to global politics and the “efficacy of BRICS, IBSA, and BASIC, due to Brazil’s geographical and political leadership.
- Deepak Bhojwani, former Indian Ambassador to Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba, explained how India had a “major stake in Brazil’s stability and prosperity” and the current “political soap opera” will be closely watched by New Delhi to see how “this tussle for legitimacy plays itself out.”
Looking ahead, commentators pressed Brazil to quickly find a solution to their severe economic and political difficulties.
- Srinivasan argued India will “have to wait for a successor leader to emerge” – hopefully one with an “unimpeachable record of public service and a similar proactive attitude toward Third World solidarity” – though that “wait may prove to be a long one.”
- While Bhojwani urged Brazil to “repair its badly damaged political system,” he noted Rousseff’s successor is someone who would not have been elected to the presidency and is seen by many as more corrupt than the deposed leader.
China is Brazil’s largest trading partner, but the recent slowdown in the Chinese economy hurt Brazil. Interim president Michel Temer swore his country would rely on strengthening trade and investment with China to boost the Brazilian economy. According to Xinhua, Brazilian Senator Helio Jose thought “China is the most important economic entity in the world with a huge investment in Brazil” and “Brazil is very much interested in enhancing” trade with China.”
Media outlets in China focused on Rousseff’s future and what the impeachment could mean for future Sino-Brazil relations.
- Xinhua editor Yao Chun predicted Rousseff’s chance at staying in power was “slim” and did not expect a “smooth” path for her successor.
- Earlier this year, the Financial Times reported the total volume of containerized exports from China into Brazil fell by half due to the Latin American country’s economic troubles.
- On the other hand, Lyu Chang, writer for China Daily, noted that despite Brazil’s “looming recession,” Chinese hydropower companies see the South American country’s “humongous water resources like the might Amazon” as a market for Chinese built dams and power stations.
- During an interview with The People’s Daily, University of São Paulo José Medeiros da Silva sensed Brazil’s new leaders will “certainly be able to understand the importance of the strategic partnership with China.”
- The lesson to draw from Brazil’s seemingly endless political crisis, according to The Global Times, is that the “practice of Western democracy requires strong support from the country’s cultural traditions toward the rule of democracy.” Without this support and a strong economy, the paper concluded “the process to become a democratic state will be filled with turmoil.”
Russian officials emphasized the country has no intentions to interfere in Brazil’s domestic politics and that other countries should follow the suit. These statements came out as Russian press issued reports and editorials suspecting the U.S. government, CIA, and NSA supported the “coup” against Rousseff and that Termer was “just another puppet of the U.S. imperialism in Latin America.”
- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated “we are closely watching the developments and insist that any decisions should be taken exclusively within the framework of the law, the constitution. Naturally, we think that any attempts at external interference with these processes are inadmissible.”
- “Undoubtedly, we don’t have any intentions to interfere in the situation in Brazil,” emphasized Alexander Shchetinin, director of the Latin American department at Russia’s foreign ministry. He wanted the international community to “display tact and delicacy so that Brazilians should have a possibility to decide their internal affairs independently.”
- “We want to see a stable, democratic, and of course dynamically developing Brazil, which could play a vital role in the international arena,” said Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. She vowed “Russia regards Brazil to be a vital foreign policy partner in Latin America and the whole world. We actively cooperate at the United Nations, BRICS and G-20.”
Japanese newspapers remained apprehensive about Brazil’s future.
- The impeachment is a reflection of Brazil’s long-lasting economic slump and corruption scandals surrounding state-owned oil companies and of the increasing public distrust in the government, opined Nikkei Shimbun.
- Nishi Nippon Shimbun expressed concerns about the ramifications for the Summer Olympics. The political turmoil, combined with the economic recession, could increase crime rates and decrease public safety. Should this affect the management of the Olympic Games, “Brazil’s international reputation as a model for rising powers will be damaged.”
- Sankei Shimbun took a more alarmist view, calling Brazil’s public safety issues “a state of war” between the police and criminal organizations. With the current political and economic crises, as well as the recent lay-offs of police officers due to government financial problems, the situation is becoming worse, raising serious concerns for the Summer Olympics.