Impeaching Dilma weakens Latin American democracy

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 19, 2016


The impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff will likely end up forcing the ouster of the Brazilian president.


Independent from the impact of the political battle in Brazil, opponents of democratically elected governments elsewhere in South America will feel emboldened to score political victories by trying to force democratically elected leaders out of office using procedural rules.


Since Brazil’s problems are structural, they will not go away by pushing the president out of office. The same arguments which have been put forth to justify the impeachment allegations against Dilma could easily be applicable to remove from office many of the legislators who voted to impeach the democratically elected president on Sunday. The corruption scandals which have surfaced in recent months implicate dozens of politicians, including Vice-President Michel Temer. Thus, if the claim that Brazilians are no longer willing to tolerate corruption scandals were true, many others would have to be removed from power together with Rousseff.


It is undeniable that the president’s implication in the corruption scandals warrants an investigation by an independent prosecutor. If sufficient evidence is presented to illustrate her participation, she ought to be removed from power. Yet, the impeachment process against her is not based on this evidence. It is the result of a political move designed to subvert the popular will which re-elected Rousseff in 2014.


Dilma’s departure from office could have been a window of opportunity for Brazil if the new leader could make a fresh start and adopt reforms which could jumpstart the economy and put the corruption scandals behind. Unfortunately, the political elite in the country is more concerned with the political fight over the president’s future than with the national economy or combating corruption.


In addition to all the negative implications Dilma’s impeachment has for Brazilian democracy, the effect of the political process against the president will be surely felt elsewhere in Latin America. Although Brazil and the rest of Latin America are separated by a language barrier, social, economic and political developments in that country have repercussions elsewhere in South America. Brazil shares a border with 10 of the 12 South American nations (only Chile and Ecuador are not neighbours). The Brazilian economy accounts for 55 percent of South American economic output. Brazilians account for almost half of all South Americans. When Brazil does well, South America benefits. When Brazil suffers a crisis, the rest of South America needs to brace for hard times.


Taking advantage

The decision by the Brazilian opposition to move forward with the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff was unquestionably influenced by the difficult economic conditions in the country and her high disapproval ratings. The corruption scandals which have put the government on the defensive during recent months have also been fuelled by these factors. People are discontented and blame the government for the economic troubles. The opposition has taken advantage of the opportunity and seeks to acquire political power by means other than elections. Even if the official discourse of the opposition is framed in terms of combating corruption, the fact of the matter is that if the fight against corruption was the driving-force for the opposition’s actions, they could easily start by sanctioning their own politicians who are involved in corruption scandals. The fact that the opposition is quick to point fingers at the government for the accusations, but drags its feet when it comes to calling out its own members who are implicated, shows that the driving-force is political gain, not a zealous defence of high ethics.


In Brazil, Temer went from being the president’s political ally to becoming her rival. Having had the opportunity to challenge Rousseff for the highest office in 2014, Temer chose to remain her veep. It is unlikely that voters would have given him much electoral support had he chosen to seek the presidency in 2014. Yet, as a result of the corruption scandal, he might very well end up replacing Dilma. Were he not involved in other corruption allegations — or not associated with the political party most closely linked to patronage — he would be more appropriately fit to replace Rousseff as president. Yet, the way in which he will become president undermines the popular will. Because he did not want to run in 2014 nor would he be electable in the case of early elections, his only path to the presidency is by political manoeuvre.


Elsewhere in South America, other politicians are taking note of the political developments in Brazil. As the economies of the region cool off and corruption scandals dominate the press, other powerful politicians who have no way of reaching the presidency via the democratic process are probably pondering the possibility of using non-electoral mechanisms to acquire political power, which voters are unlikely to bestow upon them. Precisely because they are new and unlikely converts in the fight against corruption, by subverting the popular will those politicians are weakening democracy in the region.