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Political Upheaval In Brazil – Analysis

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By Gautam Sen*

Brazil has been in a state of political upheaval since April-May 2016. In fact, political scandals, based on allegations of corruption against politicians and state functionaries, have been building up over the last few years. President Dilma Vana Rouseff, the 31st President, in power since October 2010 (in second term since 2014) and also the only woman president Brazil has ever had, was temporarily suspended from the presidency for 180 days by the country’s parliament on May 12. Roussef’s temporary suspension was consequent on the Senate (Upper House of the national legislature) confirming on May 12 the decision of the Chamber of Deputies (the Lower House) on April 17 by a two-thirds majority to start impeachment proceedings against her based on corruption charges.

Allegations against Rouseff are that: (i) she had manipulated government accounts when seeking re-election in 2014, promoted the interests of her Workers Party (in power since 2003) and allowed kickbacks from Petrobras, the state oil company, to finance the Party’s political campaign. There were complaints that public funds were spent illegitimately to pay members of parliament.

The genesis of the present mess lies in the ‘Lava Jato’ scandal – popularly known as Operation ‘Car Wash’, which originated in Parana state. Many big construction companies, some multinationals and nearly 50 politicians are alleged to have been involved in overcharging ‘Petrobras’ between one and three per cent for the supplies and services contracted to them. Before Rouseff was suspended from the presidency, there were massive but peaceful street protests by her supporters and counter-demonstrations by the right-wing and centrist political parties and their associates. Timothy J. Power, a professor of Brazilian Studies at Oxford University, had succinctly summed up the developing situation by stating that, “the reputation of the political class in Brazil really can’t go any lower.” An overriding impression today is that the Brazilian model of governance has failed.

With Vice President Michel Temer’s(from Brazil’s Democratic Movement Party – PMDB, an earlier ally of Rouseff`s Workers Party but subsequently split from the coalition), interim assumption of the presidency, a conservative right-wing shift in appointments and policies seems to be evident. As per an opinion poll – Datafolha Poll – of 11 April, Rouseff was considered bad by nearly 63 per cent of those interviewed and terrible for the country, with two-thirds supporting Rouseff`s impeachment, though the politicians who stood opposed to Rouseff were deemed no better either. The interim president, Michel Temer, has been accused of violating campaign financing limits. Many political leaders in government positions and prominent legislators are besmirched in financial scandals. For example, the President of the Brazilian Senate is under investigation; and Eduardo Cunha, incumbent Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, is alleged to have taken USD 2 million in bribes for drilling infrastructure and has been ordered to step down, on similar grounds.

With the political weakening of Rouseff, there would be some impact internationally on the BRICS and IBSA, with both of which India is associated. India may also weigh the impact of the developments in Brazil vis-a-vis its foreign policy concerns, membership in a reformed UN system, etc. The present interim and unelected government of Michel Temer is unlikely to remain enthusiastic about sustaining Brazil in the path set by the governments of Lula da Silva (Rouseff`s predecessor) and Rouseff vis-a-vis BRICS and IBSA. Without the active involvement of Brazil – the largest Latin American country both territorially and from the point of view of economic resources and output – in BRICS and IBSA, the international pre-eminence of the USA in the Western hemispheric and Latin American political, economic and strategic contexts, and in setting the rules of engagement in regimes dealing with matters like climate change, nuclear proliferation, trade regimes, etc., will only be accentuated.

The stance of the Organisation of American States (OAS), a political grouping of the Western Hemispheric countries set up in 1948 as a post-Second World War institution under the Bogota Charter and wherein the USA has wielded substantial influence, towards the developments in Brazil has been quite curious. Luis Almagro, a former foreign minister of Ecuador and presently the secretary general of OAS, has opined that the OAS has made a detailed analysis of the Brazilian impeachment process and concluded that it does not merit such a step within the precise process set out for the purpose (implying that the Brazilian Constitutional system and political milieu). He has also stated that there is no criminal accusation against Rouseff, only that she has been accused of poor administration. This, in spite, of the fact that Rouseff has earlier been president of the Petrobras Board as Mining Minister prior to becoming president.

Notwithstanding the observations of Almagro, there has been criticism from many quarters that the OAS is adopting dual standards in dealing with member states. While the OAS has invoked its Democratic Charter – adopted in September 2001 – which has the potential of being used as an interventionist instrument to interfere in the domestic policies of member states, and summoned its Permanent Council to consider the suspension of Venezuela, it has not taken any such overt posture towards Brazil. At the behest of Venezuela’s parliament, which has criticised the country`s president, Nicolas Maduro, on his so-called repressive domestic economic and political policies, undermining of the judiciary by packing the highest court with politically aligned judges, and demanded that he step down from the presidency, the OAS has activated its Permanent Council and invoked the Democratic Charter. However, the OAS has not initiated any consequential action on the suspension of Rouseff from Brazil’s presidency. It, therefore, appears that, the organisation’s role in ameliorating the Brazilian political crisis is unlikely to be significant.

In this backdrop, an early decisive conclusion to the political crisis in Brazil and also a finality in the position of Rouseff vis-a-vis the presidency appear unlikely. It is quite possible that the impeachment process may prolong beyond 180 days, with the interim president continuing till 2018 when Rouseff’s second term will end, if early presidential elections are not held. However, an early presidential election presupposes a political consensus which does not appear likely soon. Rouseff and her Workers Party with the support of her predecessor Lula are likely to demand a referendum. Rouseff has already hinted as much after her suspension.

In the meantime, the overall political and socio-economic situation in Brazil seems to be deteriorating. With political corruption looming as a pervasive phenomenon, the currency (Real) slipping against the US dollar, unemployment rate at 9.5 per cent, eight million jobs lost in 2015, a nearly 30 per cent deceleration in economic growth, health issues arising out of the proliferating zika virus, and a huge financial subsidy of USD 2.9 billion equivalent announced for the forthcoming Rio Olympics and the Paralympic Games, the overall scenario is worrisome. The acting governor of Rio has recently expressed apprehension about a total collapse in public security, health, education and mobility. Apropos the above, and the anticipated national government deficit of USD 19 billion equivalent in 2016, the country is in the throes of a crisis. In the ultimate analysis, Brazilians themselves and their political leaders will have to resolve this crisis. External intervention, even within the OAS framework, is unlikely to help.

*The author is a retired IDAS officer who served at the level of Special Secretary in the Government of India and as Adviser & Additional Chief Secretary to a State Government

Views expressed are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India. Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/political-upheaval-in-brazil_gsen_280616


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The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.

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