What comes after the vote to impeach Brazil’s president


The vice-president is likely to take power. He will not find it easy to govern the country

AT 11.07pm on April 17th federal deputy Bruno Araújo of Pernambuco state cast the most momentous vote in his parliamentary career. The lawmaker for the centre-right opposition Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) was the 342nd member of the 513-seat lower house of Brazil’s Congress to say “yes” to sending impeachment charges against the president, Dilma Rousseff, to the Senate for trial. The necessary threshold of two-thirds of deputies had thus been passed; Ms Rousseff’s foes in the chamber burst into song. By the time voting ended, just before midnight, they had notched up 367 votes. The government, led by Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT), managed 137, plus seven abstentions and two absentees—well short of the 172 it needed to block the motion.

In their brief speeches during the rowdy six-hour roll-call vote, pro-impeachment lawmakers railed against Ms Rousseff’s economic mismanagement and PT corruption—the party and its allies are embroiled in a vast bribery scandal centred on the state-run oil company, Petrobras. They were voting for their families, they proclaimed, or their constituents, or God. One elated pro-impeachment deputy blurted out that he did it for “peace in Jerusalem”. Few mentioned the abstruse charge against Ms Rousseff: that she had fiddled with government accounts to hide the true size of the budget deficit.

With Mr Araújo’s vote Brazil entered a tense and uncertain time. In the next few days the Senate’s Speaker, Renan Calheiros, will convene a commission to analyse the lower-house motion. It has ten sessions to recommend whether to proceed with the trial, which then needs the approval of a simple majority of the 81 senators to begin. That is likely to happen by mid-May.

If the senators decide to go ahead, as looks likely, Ms Rousseff must step aside as president. The vice-president, Michel Temer will take her place for up to 180 days. Should two-thirds of senators then vote to remove Ms Rousseff from office, Mr Temer would serve out the rest of her term, which ends in 2018.

If he does eventually take over, he will face a daunting task. The economy is in a tailspin. Economic output fell by 3.8% in 2015 and could shrink by as much again this year, reckons the IMF. Some 10m Brazilians, or one in ten workers, are jobless. Inflation has eased slightly but remains near 10%, eroding incomes. To restore confidence Mr Temer would first need to reduce the budget deficit, which has ballooned from 2.4% of GDP to 10.8% since Ms Rousseff first took office in 2011. That would require a combination of spending cuts and tax rises, neither of which is popular—and some of which need constitutional changes to enact.

Investors will cheer the impeachment vote. Many reckon that anyone is better than the hapless Ms Rousseff. In November Mr Temer outlined a set of business-friendly reform proposals at odds with the left-wing programme of Ms Rousseff’s PT. But euphoria will be short-lived if he does not quickly present a clear reform agenda and a strong economic team. Despite his pro-reform instincts, neither is assured.

Just because 72% of the house backed impeachment does not mean Mr Temer will have an easy time putting together simple majorities for reforms in Congress, let alone the three-fifths of both houses needed to amend the constitution. He cannot even bank on the full support of his own centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB): seven of his party colleagues backed Ms Rousseff during the impeachment vote, including the party’s leader in the chamber, Leonardo Picciani.

In putting together a new governing team, Mr Temer will have to balance technocratic competence with the demands of coalition-building among the 27 parties in Brazil’s fractious Congress. He may struggle to attract outside talent because of the PMDB’s image problem. The party, which was the PT’s closest ally until it broke ranks last month, is also embroiled in the Petrobras affair. Six of its senior congressmen are under investigation, including Mr Calheiros; the Supreme Court has already indicted the Speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, for corruption and money laundering. (All deny wrongdoing.) The PSDB is already mumbling that it may support a Temer government without officially entering the cabinet (though some of its politicians may accept ministerial posts).

Although business is pro-reform in principle, it is likely to be less enthusiastic in practice. Higher taxes are anathema to the employers’ federations that hold considerable sway with many PMDB politicians. Many bosses, especially in Brazil’s coddled manufacturing sector, are none too keen on cutting subsidies or lifting barriers to trade that shield them from foreign competition. Nor will they begin hiring again all of a sudden: prospects remain too uncertain for that. Austerity is not a vote-winner; the new government will be reluctant to cut spending before October’s local elections, which are especially important for the PMDB.

Perhaps the hardest task for Mr Temer, once he assumes office, will be to persuade the large minority of Brazilians who still support Ms Rousseff that he leads a legitimate government. There is none of the unanimity witnessed in 1992, when Congress impeached Brazil’s first popularly elected president, Fernando Collor, for accepting bribes. Back then just 38 deputies opposed the motion; Mr Collor had no popular backing to speak of. For all her political and economic failings, Ms Rousseff still does. 53,000 pro-impeachment protesters celebrated the result in front of Congress; across a steel fence erected by the police some 26,000 counter-demonstrators cried “coup”. Similar scenes—minus the fence—were repeated across Brazil. Anti-government crowds may now disperse, at least until the Senate’s final ruling months from now. Those who regard Ms Rousseff’s removal as an undemocratic coup are unlikely to go as quietly.

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