Dilma Rousseff’s Perfect Storm

Demonstrators hold a banner during a protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia

Demonstrators hold a banner during a protest against Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia. Source: Reuters

A stagnating economy, a far-reaching corruption scandal and a faltering political system are undermining Rousseff’s second term in office. But not all is amiss in Brazil.

Anyone following the news on Sunday, March 15 would have had the uneasy feeling of déjà vu. Images of thousands of Brazilians marching on the streets against their elected government evoked the massive revolts that shook the country in June 2013. Then, as now, protesters expressed their anger towards President Dilma Rousseff and the ruling Worker’s Party (PT). However, the ongoing Petrobras scandal and a stagnating economy have made Rousseff more vulnerable than ever. Add to that her current approval rating of 13% and it is easy to see why there are clouds gathering over Brasilia.

Brazil’s democratic institutions are being put to the test. The judiciary is currently handling what has become the greatest corruption scandal in the country’s history. Investigations have been taking place since last year on a massive criminal organization comprised of Brazil’s largest construction firms, the state-owned oil company Petrobras and some of the major national political parties, including Rousseff’s PT.  The construction firms bribed party leaders, senators and representatives to grant them public-private partnership projects with Petrobras. Over $3 billion has been stolen from public funds. Petrobras, once the fourth largest company in the world by market capitalization, lost 20% of its value last year.

Nevertheless, state authorities are displaying institutional strength in tackling this scandal. That is no small feat in a country where bribery and corruption can be witnessed on a daily basis in all sectors of society and where the most powerful political figures have historically lived above the rule of law.  Government institutions ranging from the Federal Police to the Public Prosecutor’s office have worked in conjunction to reveal the extent of the briberies occurring in the backrooms of Brasilia. In the beginning of the month, Public Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot compiled a list of 45 politicians, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate to be investigated by the Supreme Court for their alleged involvement in the Petrobras scandal.

The fallout from these investigations could make Rousseff’s presidential coalition increasingly fragile as many of her most important allies as well as leaders of her own party are under scrutiny.  Crucially, the President herself could be involved. Rousseff was the chairman of Petrobras while the massive briberies were occurring. There are many who believe that it is impossible that she did not know of the scandal’s existence, even though there has been no concrete proof involving her so far.

The challenge to Brazilian democracy does not end with the Petrobras scandal. After a divisive presidential campaign last year, opposition against Rousseff is at an all-time high. There is a significant and extremely influential sector of the population that is increasingly radicalized against Rousseff and the PT.

Could PT have created the movement that might be their undoing? Source: Cartacapital

Before reaching the executive office, it was the PT who mobilized grassroots movements. Nowadays, it’s the educated elite that goes out into the streets, eager to present themselves as the voice of the people. Thousands followed them on March 15, highlighting the government’s inability to be in touch with its own citizens. Promising political reform is no longer an option for the government; Brazilians have felt themselves rampantly unrepresented by their own political figures for far too long. Corruption and complacent governance is no longer dully accepted as it once was.

Brazilian and international media outlets have been eager to spin the current protests as a spontaneous and inclusive movement of the masses against a corrupt regime. However, it cannot be emphasized enough that the protests were instigated and mostly comprised of members of the white, urban conservative elite. Rich and poor are dissatisfied with Rousseff’s performance, as seen in her approval ratings. However, most of the people out in the streets calling for her removal from office are members of the elite that predominantly voted against her in the 2014 elections. The current revolt against the government fails to appeal to the urban periphery and the rural poor who feel just as distant from Rousseff’s government as they do to the urban elites and opposition parties that endorsed the revolt.

This month’s protests have a displayed a juxtaposition between people exercising their democratic right to express themselves and a pervasive impetus for change at any means necessary, even if it is done unconstitutionally. There was more than a hint of irony witnessing protesters asking for military intervention in the 30th anniversary of the end of military rule. Such blatant contradictions have defined the current protests and have thrown the crisis facing the country out of proportion. No matter how disliked Rousseff may be, she remains the democratically elected leader of the country.

A democratic call for Military intervention against a popularly elected Head of State? Source: Vox

Brazilians have a burgeoning tendency to believe that the horrors of the world only exist within their own borders. The predominant national perspective is that nothing that happens in Brazil is ever as good as what happens abroad. We are collective heirs of a history filled with injustice and unfulfilled potential, ultimately leaving us perpetually pessimistic over Brazil’s past, present and future.

It is undeniable that Rousseff’s handling of the economy has been turbulent and that reforming the political system to be more transparent and representative of the electorate is long overdue. It is also true that mass protests against the government are democratically legitimate and necessary for these changes to occur. Nonetheless, it cannot be forgotten that Brazil has created democratic institutions that allow for such a national dialogue to take place. These institutions have also proven to be incredibly resilient in tackling a far-reaching corruption scandal that would have been easily hidden under the rug in previous administrations.

Corruption will not go away anytime soon, but there are signs of hope. It is estimated that government corruption takes 0.8% off Brazil’s GDP every year. That number is unacceptable for any country, but two decades ago that figure represented 5% of the GDP. Values are changing; effective governance is no longer a distant dream, but a legitimate expectation of the people towards its representatives.

Thus, there is room for optimism alongside the colossal dissatisfaction towards the country’s political apparatus. Brazilian democracy is facing great challenges but it has shown to be more than capable to handle the crisis. The perfect storm faced by Dilma Rousseff is a testament to that institutional resilience. Brazilians are demanding accountability and greater prosperity. In the not so distant future, and despite our own internal pessimism, we might just get both.

Gabriel Funari

Gabriel Funari

Associate Editor, Latin America at InPRA
Gabriel Funari  is a Brazilian by birth and an internationalist by circumstance. He has lived in the Netherlands, South Africa, Germany and the UK prior to attaining an International Studies degree at American University in Washington, DC. Passionate about Brazilian politics, Latin American regional integration, New Left movements and post-colonialism, he aspires to challenge conventional narratives surrounding international politics and seeks to contribute to the crucial issues of our times through vibrant dialogue and debate.
Gabriel Funari

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