Brazil and its president
Dealing with Dilma
Many Brazilians are fed up with their president. But impeaching her would be a bad idea
SHE is less than three months into her second term, but already most Brazilians want to see the back of Dilma Rousseff. Grappling with a sickly economy and a hydra-headed corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant, she finds herself almost friendless in Brasília. She has already lost control of a Congress where, in theory, her coalition has a comfortable majority. More than 1m Brazilians took to the streets on March 15th to repudiate their president. Her approval rating has fallen by 30 points in six months to 13%, the lowest for a Brazilian president since Fernando Collor in 1992, on the eve of his impeachment for corruption.
Nearly 60% of respondents in one poll believe that Ms Rousseff merits the same fate. It is not hard to see why voters are angry. She chaired Petrobras’s board in 2003-10, when prosecutors believe more than $800m was stolen in kickbacks and funnelled to politicians in the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and its allies, 47 of whom face criminal investigation. She won last year’s presidential election—albeit by just 3% of the vote—by assuring Brazilians that their living standards, jobs and social benefits were threatened only by her opponents.
In fact, as many voters now realise, Ms Rousseff was peddling a lie. It was the mistakes committed in her first term that have led to the spending cuts and tax and interest-rate rises she is now inflicting (and which have earned her the enmity of her own party). Add the perception that her re-election campaign may have been partly financed by money stolen from Petrobras, and Brazilians have every reason to feel they are the victims of the political equivalent of a confidence trick.
But to conclude that Ms Rousseff should be kicked out is an emotional overreaction. Brazilian law holds that presidents can be impeached only for criminal acts—and only then if they are committed during their current term. Prosecutors have found no evidence to implicate Ms Rousseff in the racketeering at Petrobras—nor that it is continuing. And although many Brazilian politicians think the president is dogmatic or incompetent, nobody seriously believes that she has enriched herself. Contrast that with Mr Collor, who pocketed money that his associates extracted with promises of influence.
A painful lesson
Impeachment is always as much a political calculation as a legal one. In the end Mr Collor fell because of his arrogance, a failed anti-inflation scheme and his disdain for Congress. That precedent explains why Ms Rousseff is endangered by her political isolation. Yet the opposition and the president’s disgruntled allies should not try to push her out unless clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing against her comes to light.
Brazil’s institutions are working to detect and punish crimes that were committed by the ruling clique. Impeachment would turn into a witch-hunt that would weaken those institutions by politicising them. Ms Rousseff and the PT must take responsibility for the mess she made during her first term, rather than becoming martyrs to impeachment. Brazilians are paying for her mistakes, too. But by having Ms Rousseff in office, they are more likely to grasp that her old policies are to blame, not the new ones. That is an important lesson.