Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been provisionally removed from office while she waits for a verdict in her impeachment trial, which can take up to 180 days. In turn, her vice president, Michel Temer, has become the interim president. The process leading up to the change in leaders has taken a toll on all sides. The government lost credibility and the opposition is seen as having made an opportunistic attempt to grab power through a much-questioned impeachment process. The public, too, is at a loss. The impeachment is more like the anesthesia before the needed surgery rather than the operation the population expected could “fix” the situation. The result is a general feeling of numbness, even for the notoriously energetic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president and Rousseff’s political mentor, whose last words after his mentee left office on May 12 were simply: “I’m going home now.”
For months, a majority of Brazilians have lived with the expectation that, once Rousseff left, the country would finally start thinking about the political and economic maladies it faces. This means that the window for the new government to produce some results is a small one, especially considering Rousseff’s ousted Workers Party’s (PT) promise to block any reform proposed by the interim president. The population is impatient and the sedative effect of the impeachment process will soon wear off, which could mean new protests and instability if there are no significant changes in the short term.
As delicate as the situation may be, it is already possible to predict how the new government will operate. Temer’s newly formed cabinet—his only concrete action so far as Brazil’s new leader—is telling. Brazil has over 30 political parties, all of which demand cabinet positions in exchange for their backing, which Temer needs if he is to pass any reform in Congress. For her part, Rousseff had needed to go as far as creating 39 ministries to form a viable coalition. Despite this history, Temer decided to cut down the number of cabinet posts to 23, thus responding to the major popular demand of making government leaner. This is no small feat since he did this while guaranteeing a majority in Congress.
There is obviously a cost to reducing the numbers in his cabinet. He could only offer posts to the most powerful figures in Congress, who happen to be rich, white, older males. That was, predictably, fuel for Temer’s critics, who are demanding greater diversity and the inclusion of women and other minorities in a more representative government.
Beyond issues with the cabinet’s general composition, the centerpiece of the body is Henrique Meirelles, Temer’s new minister of the economy, who was president of the Brazilian Central Bank under Lula. Meirelles was the first name to be announced and he has been given full autonomy to make the necessary changes to Brazil’s economic structure. His nomination is ironic, however, since Lula had been trying to pressure Rousseff into nominating Meirelles to his current position for the last few years. She stubbornly rejected the idea because of old jealousies from when both of them were part of Lula’s cabinet, when the president always took Meirelles’ side.
Over the next few years, Brazil will surely try to regain its relevance in the world, which could help its economic aspirations as well.Meirelles did not accept the job lightly. He calculated his move as a dramatic comeback into the political world, since he has ambitions of holding elected office in the near future. If he succeeds in rescuing the economy, he could take a path similar to former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s, whose success as the minister of the economy after the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello in 1994 led him to victory in the next two presidential elections. Meirelles hopes for a similar destiny, which should drive him to use his good reputation with the market and his track record under the Lula government to place economic reforms at the center stage of the Temer government.
The other aspiring presidential candidate in Temer’s cabinet is José Serra, a senator for the state of São Paulo with the Social Democratic Party (PSDB) who is the new minister of foreign relations. There is probably no cabinet position that has lost as much prestige during the Rousseff years as foreign relations. Rousseff’s tendency to centralize power meant that Brazilian diplomats lost autonomy. Meanwhile, she prioritized domestic issues, which meant a reduced budget for the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Yet this is clearly a strategic post, which gives Serra a perfect platform to show what he is capable of in preparing for a bid for the presidency in 2018. Over the next few years, Brazil will surely try to regain its relevance in the world, which could help its economic aspirations as well.
The Serra nomination also brought his party, the PSDB, into the government coalition for the first time since it lost the presidency to the PT in 2002. This means that the main opposition party during the Rousseff administration is now on Temer’s side. But the party has made it clear that if popular demands such as the continuation of corruption investigations of figures in Rousseff’s PT, for example, are not carried forward, it will leave the coalition. This shows how fragile Temer’s alliances are at this point; at the same time, it demonstrates that he is able to conciliate opposing interests, which was always Rousseff’s main struggle.
Temer’s cabinet indicates that the new government will place its bets on economic recovery in the short term in order to guarantee the necessary support to stay in power and to promote reforms in other areas, such as in the political system, down the road. After all, Rousseff is still the president unless the Senate votes to remove her, and if Temer is unable to produce the necessary changes the country demands, he could lose his support base and push his allies to support Rousseff’s return. Since the Federal Senate judges the impeachment trial, the process is ultimately political, and politics have a way of producing unexpected results.
Meanwhile, Brazil must find a way back to normalcy, or at least some version of it. The political crisis has taken over Brazilians’ lives, which means that everyone is attuned to what is happening in Brasilia, the nation’s capital. With any misstep, Temer could face as much popular anger as Rousseff did. The population is eager to get through the impeachment process and the interim government needs to take advantage of the momentary numbness the impeachment has caused. Let’s just hope the postoperative care does not cause further complications.