Political theatrics that are dividing Brazil

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April 5, 2015 7:53 pm

Political theatrics that are dividing Brazil

Otavio Frias Filho/FT

More than half of all Brazilians disapprove of Rousseff’s administration, writes Otavio Frias Filho

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©EPA/Sebastiao Moreira

Unrest: the Petrobras revelations have sparked protest

To watch the political theatre now unfolding in Brazil is to behold a country licked by discontent and scandal. An economy that had already been drifting for years is now in recession, and inflation is on the rise. Dilma Rousseff, narrowly re-elected to the presidency late last year, has had little choice but to renege on campaign promises and resort to harsh austerity.

While spending cuts are a necessary corrective to the fiscal complacency of her first term, many accuse Ms Rousseff of deception. They are embittered, too, by allegations of multibillion dollar kickbacks connected to Petrobras. No evidence has emerged to implicate Ms Rousseff, who as minister of mines and energy headed the Brazilian state-owned oil company’s board of directors when much of the corruption is said to have occurred. Still, large crowds of protesters gathered across the country last month, calling for her to be impeached.

  • Brazil is one of the few democracies to have removed a sitting president before (Fernando Collor was turfed out of office in 1992). Lawmakers may be tempted to unsheathe their daggers once again. As recently as December, fewer than a quarter of Brazilians disapproved of Ms Rousseff’s administration. Now the figure is over half.

That has emboldened Ms Rousseff’s coalition partners. They are threatening to blunt the government’s programme of fiscal readjustment, and that is not the limit to the mischief they can make. The bar to impeachment is low; “lack of decorum” is a sufficient legal reason. If the government gets its way, declining living standards will make the president even less popular.

Still, the outcome of these political theatrics is far from preordained. Ms Rousseff has undertaken a process of economic readjustment that many in the establishment consider necessary. They may calculate that it is better for her to remain in office for as long as she can govern. Even the opposition is against impeachment, preferring Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ party (PT) to stay to the bitter end. As one respected opposition senator put it: “Let her bleed.”

After 12 years in power, the PT, which was founded by trade union industrial labour leaders in 1980, seems to have come to the end of the historical cycle typical of social democratic parties. They tend to emerge from revolutionary or extra-parliamentary movements, develop a reformist bent when in power, only to become increasingly corrupt the longer they remain there.

Nonetheless, there have been positive outcomes. Between 2003 and 2011 the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva combined sensible economic management with effective poverty reduction measures — though it also had the benefit of a commodity boom. Mr da Silva wisely limited himself to two terms, endorsing Ms Rousseff’s candidacy in 2010, even when his popularity may have tempted him to try for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to run again.

The PT has been so successful in reducing poverty that it has created legions of middle-class voters who tend to resent paying too much tax. That is another stabilising factor; popular feeling is moving to the right at roughly the same pace as the administration.

However brutal the denouement of Ms Rousseff’s tenure, it is unlikely to do lasting damage to the institutional stage on which it unfolds. Brazilian stability rests on a long tradition of conciliação, or conciliation. No one wants the volcano of social inequality to start spitting lava. A readiness to compromise might be called both the nation’s main virtue and its sin.

Still, none of this means that Ms Rousseff’s future is safe. She will require great assurance if she is to push ahead with unpopular readjustment measures in the midst of protest. Her mandate ends in 2018. If she is to stay in office until then, she must hope for a sharp improvement in Brazil’s fortunes.

The writer is editorial director of the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015.

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