The Problem With Brazil’s Democracy
By Eli Gershon
In September 2015, I wrote a piece for the Globe detailing Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s abysmal approval rating. At that time, 8 in 10 Brazilians were in favor of impeaching the “Socialist Iron Lady.” Her approval rating was at a historically low eight percent, and the economy was in the dumps. Now, in September 2016, Rousseff has indeed been impeached and the country could possibly be headed into the turmoil she predicted would occur long before impeachment trials even began. Leaders in the fight to impeach Rousseff on grounds of corruption and economic mismanagement are themselves now subject to investigations on those same charges.
As a young woman, Rousseff was arrested and tortured in prison by the anti-communist dictatorship of the time. After being released, she worked her way up the governmental totem pole from low-level positions to the State Secretary of Energy, to the Minister of Energy before she was elected President of Brazil in 2011. Later, Rousseff was reelected to her second, four-year term as President in 2014, but her margin of victory, at only three percentage points, was the smallest in Brazil’s modern electoral history.
In May 2016, the Senate voted to suspend Rousseff and send her to an impeachment trial. After hours of debates and impassioned speeches, the Senate voted 55-22 to suspend and send Rousseff to trial. In a speech, Rousseff denied committing any crime and accused her opponents of attempting to mount a coup. She defended herself, saying: “I may have committed errors but I never committed crimes . . . It’s the most brutal of things that can happen to a human being to be condemned for a crime you didn’t commit. There is no more devastating injustice.” Jonathan Watts, The Guardian's Latin America correspondent, says her impeachment was far more political than practical, stating that similar economic transgressions have occurred under previous presidents, none of whom have been punished.
Though seventy percent of Brazilians favored holding new elections, then-Vice President (now President) Michel Temer made clear that he would be succeeding Rousseff. The Huffington Post has reported that his cabinet will be “entirely male and overwhelmingly white.”
One of the more worrying aspects of the impeachment proceedings is the fact that 33 of Brazil’s 81 Senators have been charged, or are under investigation for corruption, fraud, and various other crimes. The third in line to the presidency was suspended by the Brazilian Supreme Court earlier in 2016 for the obstruction of justice. The fourth in line to the presidency currently is the subject of eleven criminal investigations. This man, Renan Calheiros, is the leader of the Senate, which is the body that oversaw the impeachment hearings, which finished on August 31st, 2016.
During her last day in public office as President of Brazil, Rousseff stayed quite private, opting not to take her routine morning bike ride. In the afternoon, she fired all but two of her cabinet ministers, the Minister for Finance and Minister for Sport - a key organizer of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The main problem, which is perhaps the hardest to combat, is that fact that corruption and criminal investigations run rampant in Brazilian politics. Citizens elect corrupt politicians who impeach other corrupt politicians, resulting in the destabilization of a young democracy. One possible way to combat this destabilization is to take away political rights of those who are impeached. Rousseff and many others who have been removed from office in recent times have not had their political rights taken away from them. This means that they can run for any office again whenever they feel like it. By not stripping impeached officials of their political rights, Brazil creates an atmosphere of relaxation among politicians. If they are removed, they can simply run again in subsequent elections. However, this could be a flawed solution. How would the system root out corrupt politicians while keeping honest politicians in political play? It is currently far too easy for corrupt politicians to band together to remove their honest counterparts from office for political reasons. That said, Brazil needs to hold free and fair elections quite frequently in order to give the Brazilian people a chance to weed out corrupt politicians and send righteous people to Brasilia.