Brazil: Temerity, Impeachment and Temer

 

 

Michel Temer is in deep trouble and could be the second president impeached within just one year. 

Image: Diego DEAA

The presidency represents the pinnacle to any politician’s career. Desired by many, yet fitting for very few. It has the potential to either make or break a political career. In no other region of the world, however have presidents been so often challenged and as a result left office as in Latin America.  Ever since the Third Wave of Democratization swept the region back in the early 1980s, presidential breakdowns- which include impeachments, resignations or early elections- have become a fairly common occurrence in many Latin American countries. This is driven by the public, which presumes the role of juror and effectively pressures the Legislature to oust corrupt and ill-fitting presidents. In the specific category of impeachments however, Brazil has already impeached two presidents and it appears to be currently gearing itself to impeach a third.

Michel Temer, the current embattled president, has come to power following the impeachment of his predecessor, and former coalition partner, Dilma Rousseff. The former vice-president to Ms. Rousseff, Mr. Temer’s rise to power had a very ominous tone to it, as many believe his party, the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), in alliance with the center-right party PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) pulled out a rather Machiavellian maneuver to remove Ms. Rousseff on a minor offence. The charges against Ms. Rousseff- fiscal pedaling- were very controversial as to whether they constituted impeachment-level offenses. Even though the execution of the impeachment procedures were clean and done by the book, many Brazilians never really swallowed the charges against Ms. Rousseff, and thus perceive Mr. Temer as nothing more than an usurper to the president’s seat. His presidency was already off to a shaky start following Ms. Rousseff’s removal back in May of last year, but it now appears his approval ratings have reached rock-bottom, having already reached single digits following the scandal with the Batista brothers. Mr. Temer was recorded having a conversation with the meat-mogul Joesley Batista in which Mr. Batista claimed to have many judges “in his pocket”. The president appeared to be pleased with that. Should Mr. Temer fall, he will be the second president removed in a span of just one year, and while addressing the reasons for Mr. Temer’s possible downfall is certainly an important task, the most important task now is to try to explain why it seems nearly impossible to hold on to the presidency in Brazil nowadays.

 BEING PRESIDENT IN LATIN AMERICA

The presidential system is far from being the ideal model of government, but in Latin America, it appears its worst flaws are brought to light. Arturo Valenzuela, one of the leading scholars on presidentialism in Latin America highlights the infamous case of a “dual legitimacy,” in which both the executive and legislative can claim their own electoral mandates to exercise their distinct, and often overlapping, powers. In this sense, presidents and legislators may either choose to cooperate or confront one another; the rules of the system fail to require either.

What is interesting about presidents in Latin America is that they tend to be more powerful and rule with a greater flexibility than their American counterparts. The separation of powers so vehemently advocated and praised in the American Constitution does not appear to be as clearly defined in many Latin American constitutions. In Brazil, Colombia and Peru specifically the clearest example of such lack of separation occurs in the process of introducing legislation, in which the president is allowed not only to directly initiate legislation, but also possesses the power to send Congress “urgent bills” which take precedence over any other legislative issue. Overall, many Latin American presidents thus tend to behave more like prime ministers than de facto presidents.

Conflicts between the Legislative and the Executive are therefore very common in Latin America, and most of the time the Executive tends to be on the losing side. Even though Latin American presidents are arguably the most powerful worldwide, their inability to dissolve Congress; a power very much present in the former constitutions of many countries during the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s, severely hampers the president in a possible confrontation with Congress. It also does not help that there is peculiar perception in Latin America that the president must fix the country’s problems or face bitter charges of incompetence and/or corruption. Failures of government are viewed not as failures of a party or ideology, but rather as failures of the chief executive. Protests and manifestations have thus become common since the late 1980s and much pressure is put on the Legislative to oust the president should anything start going wrong.

A THIRD IMPEACHMENT IN BRAZIL?

Brazil and Paraguay hold the distinction of having already successfully impeached two presidents each in the last 30 years. Given the dire situation Mr. Temer finds himself in at the moment, it seems Brazil may once again move ahead of Paraguay on the scoreboard. And yet should Mr. Temer in fact end up being impeached, his case would be arguably one of the most peculiar ones ever seen in Latin America. Unlike his predecessor, Ms. Rousseff, who quickly found herself at odds with the Chamber of Deputies led by the former president of the Lower House Eduardo Cunha, Mr. Temer’s situation is quite the opposite: he possesses an overwhelming majority in the Chamber of Deputies. To put it in perspective, Mr. Temer’s coalition cabinet holds 352 seats out of the 513 total seats available; his PMDB party possesses more seats than any other party with 65 seats. That is very unusual in Latin America. The typology of impeachments in Latin America often presents the case of a minority president (his party or coalition holds a minority of congressional seats) who is constantly targeted by an aggressive oppositional Legislature, which will not only block any policies put forward by the president so as to force him or her to govern by decree, but also force his or her removal based on even the most remote corruption charges. Dilma Rousseff embodies the typical case of the impeached president; Michel Temer does not.

Besides being a minority president, the commonly impeached president also tries to impose market-oriented neoliberal policies and is usually embroiled in either corruption or other scandals. Unfortunately for Mr. Temer, Brazil is currently witnessing the greatest anti-corruption crusade in the form of Operation Car Wash which targets a large number of the “political elite”.. The magnitude of Operation Car Wash exceeds anything ever witnessed in all other episodes of presidential challenges in Latin America, and while it may have somewhat initially helped Mr. Temer and his PMDB party by targeting and eroding support for Ms. Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT), it has also been proving to be a great hindrance to the Temer administration, as many of his own PMDB colleagues are being targeted by the General Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot.

At this very moment Mr. Temer himself is facing charges of bribe-taking, something unprecedented for a sitting president. These are very serious charges; certainly much more serious than the charges made against both Ms. Rousseff last year, and Fernando Collor, the first impeached president back in 1992. Mr. Temer was never going to be a popular president due to the way he rose to power, but his market-oriented policies were exactly what Brazil needed to correct the reckless spending witnessed during the two Rousseff administrations. Despite public distrust, Mr. Temer’s reforms were actually bearing fruit as Brazil saw a return to growth and falling inflation in the first quarter of this year. But then the scandal involving the Batista brothers exploded, and now Mr. Temer is in worse shape than ever.

WHAT NOW FOR TEMER AND BRAZIL?

It would be extremely shocking if Mr. Temer were in fact impeached. Not only would his case greatly deviate from the standard case of an impeached Latin American president, but also he just has too much support in the Chamber of Deputies (the Lower house) to block any impeachment procedures against him. The Constitution stipulates that two thirds of the lower house must approve the charges against him to initiate the impeachment procedures. The opposition cannot muster enough deputies to oust Mr. Temer. Furthermore, as The Economist keenly pointed out recently, the elections of 2018 are just around the corner, and many deputies will be seeking re-election. Their re-election bids would be greatly helped by a possible economic revival and the containment of Operation Car Wash, to which Mr. Temer has already made a move of his own by announcing Raquel Dodge, a deputy chief prosecutor, will be replacing General Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot at the end of his term in September. Ms. Dodge is poised to take a much softer stance towards Operation Car Wash and significantly decrease the impetus under which it is currently being carried out, thus pleasing many of Mr. Temer’s allies.

However, nothing is really settled just yet. The allies Mr. Temer boasts to have in Congress could very well turn against him if the president does not dispense enough patronage to please them. It is no secret that the name of Rodrigo Maia, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies and next in the succession line after Temer, is already being discussed in the inner circles of Congress as a suitable replacement. Furthermore, General Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot will not give Mr. Temer any breathing room as he moves on with the investigations for Operation Car Wash.

Should Mr. Temer end up in fact being impeached or resigning (very much unlikely given his huge hubris), Brazil would then be arguably heading towards a softer version of the Argentine! Que se vayan todos! political crisis of 2001, in which president Fernando de la Rua resigned amid a corruption scandal and an unparalleled  economic crisis, only to have his Congress-appointed successor Rodriguez Saa also resign after only seven days as president, before Congress finally appointed senator Eduardo Duhalde to finish de la Rua’s remaining term. The deep political crisis in 2001 paralyzed Argentina as Congress was constantly busy trying to convince and appoint a suitable new president for the country, while in the meantime the Argentine economy continued to deteriorate until the country finally defaulted on its debt. The economic situation in Brazil is by no means as delicate as the case of Argentina in 2001, but the country still faces one of its worst recessions in history; and the political uncertainty that surrounds the country will by no means ameliorate anything. For the sake of the country, the fate of Mr. Temer must be decided as soon as possible. But given how Mr. Temer fiercely clings to power, underestimate him at your own risk.

Lucas Silva Lopes

Lucas was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, having lived there for fifteen years prior to moving to the United Kingdom, where he currently resides. At the moment, Lucas is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science with a minor in economics at the University of Connecticut in the United States.

His research interests lie in the fields of political economy and economic history of Latin America. At the moment, he is conducting research for his honors thesis on presidential challenges in Latin America since 1978 and the political and socioeconomic consequences they bring to each country.

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