Brazil: “A bridge to the future”

Michel Temer’s government seeks to impose an abrasive economic agenda amidst an uncertain political terrain

Image Source: Reuters

After sealing Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in September, Brazil’s new president Michel Temer set off on a trip to the US intent on proving to the world that Brazil’s political malaise had subsided. He also used the international spotlight to advocate for the dawn of a new economic era in a country that had seen 13 years of staunch government intervention in the economy during successive Worker’s Party administrations.

Crucially, the president’s US tour offered an unprecedented glimpse into the machinations behind Rousseff’s impeachment process. Temer kept a low profile during the uproar that brought down his boss, discreetly dictating his PMDB party to utilize its congressional alliances in his favor. While Rousseff struggled to transform her electoral support into cooperation with Congress, Temer remained in the sidelines. Refusing to support the besieged administration, he began to formulate his vision of a new economic landscape for Brazil by writing “A Bridge to the Future”.

Unlike his previous publications which included books of poetry filled with impassioned verses dedicated to his wife, “A Bridge to the Future” was a white paper that offered Temer’s solution to the country’s economic crisis. It called for decreased spending on health and education services, an increase in the retirement age, rampant privatization and a dilution of Brazil’s trade restrictions. The paper was released in October 2015 and was unceremoniously ignored by the Rousseff government.

During Temer’s US trip, it became clear that the rejection of “A Bridge to the Future” was in fact one of the first nails in his predecessor’s coffin.  In a speech given in the Americas Society/Council of the Americas think-tank to business leaders in New York, Temer reminisced about the rejection of his economic agenda, going on to claim that “While still vice-president, we released a document called “A Bridge to the Future” because we saw that the government could not continue on the same path. We even suggested that the government should implement the policies set out in that document… But since there was no implementation, a process was installed which culminated in my appointment as President of the Republic”.

Temer’s speech was directed at potential American investors but his insights resonated with the millions of Brazilians who view the impeachment process with suspicion. Rousseff’s alleged budgetary violation remained contentious despite exhaustive deliberations in Congress in the first half of 2016. A visceral hatred of the Worker’s Party and a fervent desire for change in the political landscape appeared more important than the technocratic budgetary fallouts the president had been accused of.

As Temer admitted in his New York speech, the opposition’s impetus to remove Rousseff was primarily based on a socioeconomic vision for Brazil’s future that conflicted with the Worker’s Party’s agenda. Having narrowly missed the chance to defeat the Worker’s Party in the 2014 presidential elections, Rousseff’s detractors capitalized on the country’s recession and the generalized antipathy towards the political establishment to remove what was once Latin America’s most potent leftist movement from power.

As the dust settles and the last remnants of Rousseff’s tenure are swept away, the new president has been generous with his allies in Congress. After building a massive coalition comprised of center-right and conservative forces, the new government relies on old solutions to create a path towards economic growth. Meanwhile, a potentially fatal loss of credibility amongst its sympathizers has made it virtually impossible for the Worker’s Party to oppose Temer’s neoliberal push.

Bestowed with the surreal mantle of being the leader of one of the largest democracies in the world while being banned from running in an election, Brazil’s president is in a hurry to cement his legacy. Having violated campaign finance laws in 2014 and facing ongoing corruption probes, Temer knows that his time in the sun is running out. With presidential elections looming in 2018, he will seek to chisel out a new Brazil before departing the executive office.

His main economic plan, based on “A Bridge to the Future”, is currently being deliberated in Congress. Described by political pundit Chris Hayes as “the most insane fiscal policy proposal I have ever heard in my life”, the PEC 241 bill will freeze government spending at current levels for the next 20 years. While the vast majority of fiscal proposals around the world  aim to cap government spending in three to five year time frames, PEC 241 will not only halt government programs  currently in place, it will also severely restrict future governments from enacting their own socioeconomic policies.

Framed as an attempt to attract foreign investors, Temer’s economic bill threatens to unravel two decades of expansive social policies that have contributed to unprecedented poverty alleviation in Brazil. The PEC 241 bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation ever debated in Congress, yet it was drafted with no input from those it will impact the most. Civil society has attempted to fight back, with thousands protesting in Brazil’s major cities this week. Nonetheless Temer’s congressional coalition, mostly comprised of those who remain at the forefront of the Petrobras scandal, will likely ensure the bill’s ratification.

The vast majority of Brazilians are watching the fiscal debate with a familiar feeling of impotence. Removing Rousseff and the Worker’s Party was perceived to be the first step in a complete overhaul of the country’s political system. Temer has halted the impetus for change by appointing a cabinet rife with some of the most nefarious politicians the country has to offer. Romero Juca, one of Temer’s staunchest ally and a key figure in the PMDB, was forced to resign as Minister of Planning after leaked phone calls revealed his efforts to create a political pact to end the Operation Car Wash investigations.

Instead of listening to the clamor of the streets, the president will hold on to his weaning legitimacy for as long as he can. Temer will continue to avoid high profile public appearances in fear of being booed but he will not be swayed when it comes to finally ratifying his economic agenda. With the ongoing investigations surrounding the Petrobras scandal still looming over the president and his PMDB party, his congressional coalition will only remain in place if the PEC 241 bill is able to drive growth.

Regardless of the merits underlying the conflicting socioeconomic visions for Brazil’s future, the government’s aggressive policy proposals since coming to power add further strain to the country’s democratic paradigm. As an unelected government seeks to impose an abrasive austerity program on a population that depends on the state for the provision of basic services, the perennial ‘country of the future’ will continue to ensure that its insurmountable potential will remain untapped.

Ever a pragmatist, Temer has given up on convincing Brazilians that he is the right person for the job at hand. Negotiations in the backrooms of Congress will continue to be prioritized over the potential impacts that a radically stringent economic agenda can have. With legislative cooperation and popular condemnation, the president will leave his imprint on Brazil just as he had set out to do in the discarded white paper that propelled him to power.

 

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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