The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
It is weekly ritual for many Brazilians to gather around the television with family and friends on Sunday afternoons. Normally, though, the programming of choice is soccer rather than congresspeople voting for the impeachment of a president. Yet that is exactly what might happen on April 17, 2016, the day TV Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network, has promised to broadcast live what can be only described as the season finale of a political drama called “impeachment.”
The vote for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff scheduled for that day is not the last battle the opposition needs to win before she is ousted. The process still needs to be repeated in the Senate before any trial can begin—but the chances of a reversal at that point are practically nil. Once the Senate puts the matter to a vote and approves it, as it is expected to, Rousseff would have to step down while the political trial against her comes together. During that period, the current vice president, Michel Temer, will sit at the head of the table and try to rescue Brazil from one of its darkest moments in recent history until the next elections in 2018.
In some ways, this scenario would be the best possible outcome. But it isn’t the only way the story could play out. Another judicial process under review by the Supreme Electoral Courts could disqualify from office the entire presidential ticket that won the last presidential election, based on allegations of electoral corruption. This would mean both Rousseff and Temer would have to step down and new elections would be called in 90 days. The new elections would probably be held sometime next year, which would be more than enough time for the complete meltdown of the country, leaving little hope for stabilization. Even if the long impeachment trial brings down Rousseff before the end of the year, Temer will still have to battle this court case.
There is yet a third alternative, which has gained some congressional support, but is just as problematic as the previous option. The president—be it Rousseff or Temer—could voluntarily call an early election and let the people decide who should lead. The Brazilian constitution doesn’t include provisions for such a process, so congress would have to approve the move before anything happens. And, at the moment, it is unclear how the elections would help, since there is no clear alternative political leadership capable of mustering enough popular or parliamentary support to pass the necessary legislation to engineer an economic or political turnaround.
For one thing, most politicians already in power are involved in one of many corruption scandals. And other potential presidential candidates today are tainted. Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party (PSDB) and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) have been accused of corruption. Marina Silva of the Sustainable Network Party (Rede) has changed her policy positions so many times that her previous support base has dwindled. None of them win much beyond 20 percent of the vote in recent polls. For another, nobody seems to want Temer as president, either.
But that lack of popularity might be why the safest option for Brazil is likely the first scenario, in which Temer becomes interim president, which will give the country some breathing room before it is time to vote again.
Unlike Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT), which is heavily attached to labor unions and other social movements, Temer’s Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) is a catchall without a clear base or ideology to which Temer must be accountable. This means that he can propose reforms that cut across ideological interests. He likewise needs to lose no sleep over approval rates, which is a common driver of policy for presidents. Since he is already highly unpopular, if his numbers change at all, the only direction they can go is up.
If Temer has any ambitions of running for the presidency after the transition period—or for any other seat—he will have to address the population’s demands. That would mean pushing forward deep political and tax reforms, which are exactly what the country needs, but no traditional politician can undertake due to their political attachments.
One reform that has gained considerable support within congress since the end of last year, for example, is for Brazil to change from a presidential system to a parliamentary one. The switch would accompany further changes in the electoral and party system of the country that would make it easier to change the head of government without having to drag the whole system through a deep crisis. There is already a bill in the Senate to make the change, but it cannot be addressed until after the impeachment process is finalized. Temer’s party—the PMDB—is favorable toward the proposal but Rousseff’s PT has long rejected it.
The task of transition leader is surely unglamorous. But Temer is known for his ability to produce consensus and his adept leadership of the largest party in government. This means he would probably have a better chance of pushing the necessary reforms than almost any other potential president. Temer also enjoys the confidence of the economic elites. The market has already reacted well to the prospect of a Temer government. On April 11, he “mistakenly” released an address that was apparently written for if he takes power in which he reassured the population that he would continue the social programs that the current government implemented and, at the same time, make the necessary reforms to fix both the economic and political situations of the country. The following day, the Brazilian stock market rose over three percent and the price of the dollar dropped significantly.
For now, thanks to her ever-shrinking support base, Rousseff has begun to seriously consider the possibility of calling new elections as a way out of the crisis and in an attempt to dodge impeachment. All the large, medium, and even some of the small parties of her coalition have already formally dropped their support. And Lula, Rousseff’s mentor, has begun campaigning independently of her. But calling elections will not give the country enough time to address the wounds caused by the economic and political crisis. Since there are no clear heroes to call to the rescue, Brazil may just be better off betting on a predictable non-hero: Temer.