The Ides of March : Democratic Imbalance in Brazil

What do you get when you mix a decrepit political system where corruption is endemic with a newly emboldened judiciary, a collapsing economy and a socio-economic elite that sees itself in retreat amidst perpetual inequality?

 The answer is found in the voices of millions of Brazilians who have marched on the streets over the last weeks, both for and against the government of Dilma Rousseff and the Worker’s Party (PT).  A storm of seismic measures has finally hit Brazil, made up of the evolving investigations surrounding Petrobras and ongoing impeachment proceedings against Rousseff. The worst economic recession in a century also adds to the PT’s woes, a ruling party that is unable to govern yet still blind to its political demise.

How real is your smile, Dilma? Source: NewStatesman

The Tug of War in Brasilia

Amidst the potential of billions in newly discovered offshore oil reserves off the Atlantic coast, the PT and its political allies set up a graft system in which construction companies and financial institutions lined the pockets of congressmen and party leaders in order to work alongside state-owned oil company Petrobras. It is estimated that over $3.5 billion has been stolen from public funds, unprecedented figures even for a country where corruption and impunity are historically privileges of elected office.

Federal judge Sergio Moro and a team of prosecutors in the city of Curitiba are tackling the Petrobras investigations. They represent an autonomous and committed judiciary that will stop at nothing to probe into the darkest corners of the republic. Crucially, their boldness is set against an antagonizing political apparatus that is increasingly vulnerable to the findings of law enforcement. After the coercive interrogation of former president Lula on March 4 in charges related to the Petrobras scandal, open war ensued between the executive and the judiciary.

Amid claims that the investigators had political goals and were leaking confidential information to the media, the president named Lula as her new chief of staff.  Rousseff’s insistence that Lula had joined her government to halt impeachment proceedings against her was diminished when the Curitiba prosecutors leaked hours of telephone conversations between Lula and the PT leadership to the press. In one of the calls between the current and former president, Rousseff clearly indicates that she would nominate Lula to prevent his arrest.

The publication of investigation materials emphasized the judiciary’s increased inclination to bend the legal parameters they are supposed to defend. Their disregard for the confidentiality of their own head of state and of investigative procedures indicate that they are willing to combat chicanery with further chicanery. Nonetheless, the prosecutors’ promotion of an overhaul of the political system has found support in millions of Brazilians who have grown tired of the duplicity of their political representatives. While some of their actions have been legally dubious, the role of the judiciary throughout this political crisis is nothing short of historic. Their pursuit of the criminality surrounding the rich and powerful has a set an invaluable precedent for Brazil’s political future.

The Right, the Left and the Arbitrary Political Polarization

Unfortunately, the repercussions of Brazil’s political crisis are not just limited to the relentless tug of war between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. Political polarization is at its highest since the military coup of 1964. The middle class and elites that have nurtured prejudice against the PT for decades have seen their cause validated by the revelations of the party’s plunder of public funds. They march on the streets with an unwavering hatred of the PT and its allies and seek to cleanse the country from the government’s ‘leftist’ program. Meanwhile, labor unions, landless movements and leftist intellectuals have maintained their support the PT and decry the rightwing pursuit of a ‘coup’.

Intolerance of divergent political views has defined the public’s reaction to the ongoing crisis. What government supporters and the opposition fail to understand is that they have drawn arbitrary political lines between left and right that completely misrepresent the country’s political paradigm. Since being in power, the PT has not pursued any of the radical leftist policies that it previously supported. The Lula and Rousseff governments have categorically refused distant to pursue land reform, an overhaul of the fiscal system or the nationalization of key industries. Wealth redistribution programs have been successful in diminishing extreme poverty but programs such as Bolsa Familia are a far cry from the radical socialist agenda that Brazilian elites feared for when Lula was elected.

The PT was born from an unprecedented amalgamation between workers, peasants and Catholic movements, the first grassroots organization to become a national political party in Brazil. However, upon reaching the government palaces in Brasilia, the PT behaved like every other political party in a corrupt and negligible system while still waving a red flag to legitimize their leftist credentials. Thus, the political polarization that threatens to further destabilize a society riddled by poverty, crime and the disenfranchisement of racial minorities is merely a manifestation of class tensions and decrepit ideological stances.

The Ides of March: Pitfalls and Opportunities  

In 1964, the Ides of March saw president Joao Goulart announce the reformas de base, a package of leftist reforms that would include land reform and the nationalization of private oil refineries. Within a fortnight, he was deposed in a military coup that would stranglehold the country for 21 years. Rousseff’s appointment of Lula to the position of chief of staff on March 16 could incite a second tragic Ides of March for Brazilian democracy. The antagonism of a corrupt ruling party that is unable to govern is leaving a  vacuum, potentially allowing those who disregard democratic institutions to take center stage in the tragicomedy of Brazilian politics.

The persistent hostility between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government has polarized Brazilian political discourse, and the complex crisis at hand has no end in sight. Nonetheless, if the polarization is dissuaded and the ongoing investigations are allowed to continue without political meddling, the benefits to the country could be endless. If all those involved in the theft of state assets face legal consequences regardless of political affiliation and influence, Brazil has an unprecedented opportunity to create a more transparent, equitable and representative form of government.


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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