Mass protest in Brazil
The endangered Dilma Rousseff
Impeachment would be a difficult feat, but some are pushing for it
Mar 19th 2015
A MORIBUND economy. A multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal at Petrobas (the state-controlled oil giant). The critical need to find savings equal to 1.8% of GDP this year to stave off a credit-ratings downgrade. If all that were not enough for Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, to worry about, March 15th brought the country’s largest mass demonstrations since the diretas já (“elections now”) movement that helped end military dictatorship in 1985. Police reckon 2.2m people took to the streets to protest against the president and her Workers’ Party (PT).
Ms Rousseff’s approval ratings are tanking. A Datafolha poll taken in the days following the protests and published on March 18th showed that just 13% think she is doing a good job, down from 42% in December. Fully 63% disapprove of her, the highest figure for a sitting president since Fernando Collor hit 68% in September 1992, on the eve of his impeachment over another corruption scandal. Could Ms Rousseff meet the same fate?
This remains a remote possibility. Under the law, a serving president can only be removed for misdeeds committed during his or her current term of office. The Petrobras gumshoes have so far focused on alleged bribery that took place well before Ms Rousseff began her second term, on January 1st. Besides, she has not been personally implicated.
None of which has stopped the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), a grassroots liberal outfit which helped organise the latest demonstrations, from collecting signatures on an impeachment motion it intends to submit to Congress. The MBL believes it has found legal grounds in the government’s ongoing efforts to strike leniency deals with the big construction firms embroiled in the scandal—to forestall their collapse, the government claims, and with it that of many infrastructure works around the country.
The MBL argues that these accords fall foul of an anti-corruption law enacted last year, by limiting or eliminating statutory fines guilty companies must pay for their misdeeds. Most lawyers think this is a long shot. Yet as Christopher Garman of Eurasia Group, a political consultancy, observes, impeaching a president is a political process, noy a purely legal one. And for the moment, the politics look fraught. Mr Collor, who resigned as president in 1992 once his impeachment by Congress looked inevitable, was a political outsider. Ms Rousseff, by contrast, enjoys the backing of the PT, a heavyweight with ties to organised labour and social movements. They would not let her go quietly.
Moreover, the interests of the other players do not align, as they would need to. The centre-right opposition, led by the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), might be favourably inclined so long as Ms Rousseff’s ousting led to fresh elections, which it would stand a good chance of carrying. This, the law stipulates, can only happen if the vice-president were also booted out—over the ticket’s shady campaign finance, say—and only in the first two years of the four-year term; in the second half congressmen would pick one of their number to serve out the rest of the mandate. In all other circumstances Ms Rousseff’s vice-president, Michel Temer of the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), would take over. This may please the PMDB, but not the opposition, which would much rather see Ms Rousseff “bleed”, in the words of one PSDB bigwig, than give Mr Temer a chance to govern, and throw the presidential election in 2018 wide open.
The PMDB and PSDB together lack the supermajority in Congress needed to impeach Ms Rousseff. But if the economy continues to founder and more Brazilians begin voicing their discontent on the streets, they could recruit the two dozen smaller parties—and possibly the PT itself, parts of which are already queasy about Ms Rousseff’s new-found zeal for the entitlement cuts and tax rises that are anathema to its traditional working-class base. Such an outcome remains highly unlikely. But it is not inconceivable.