The decision to open impeachment proceedings against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is the latest stage in an ongoing political battle that has plagued Rousseff since she assumed office for her second term in January 2015. Regardless of the proceedings’ final outcome, the decision will not address Brazil’s critical problem – its economy. Rather, the value of the impeachment proceedings is the legal, democratic and social precedent it will set for future Brazilian governments.
On Dec. 2, the president of Brazil’s lower house Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, announced that he will allow a filed motion for impeachment against Rousseff to go forward. The grounds for impeachment are that the president violated fiscal laws, according to Brazil’s Federal Court of Accounts, by purposely delaying repayments to Brazilian lenders in order to pay for social programs, an action that made the nation’s fiscal account appear to be healthier than it was. The court found the president manipulated the budget to cover up a growing fiscal deficit.
The entire impeachment process can take up to several months. The charges against Rousseff must be independently agreed upon by a special committee, as well as two-thirds of the lower house and two-thirds of the Senate. From the time of Cunha’s announcement, the committee has 48 hours to convene and select a president. After this first step, it has up to 10 days to deliver its decision. If at any point a body rejects the impeachment motion, the process stops. Dilma will not be suspended from her function unless or until the charges reach the Senate for debate. If removed during the first two years of her term, new elections will be held in 60 to 90 days.
Throughout 2015, Rousseff’s government has struggled to govern amid scandal and an atrophying economy. Her political coalition has fragmented throughout the year though she has at times garnered the support of a majority of lower house legislators. Nearly every economic-related piece of legislation ends up being a battle between the government and opposition in the legislature. Dilma has had some support from Congress, which has chosen not to override her vetoes on some economic measures. However, one tactic used by the opposition against the government was to file impeachment petitions. And there were many. At the time of his announcement, Cunha had seven active petitions to evaluate and this does not include the other petitions he had already rejected because they were not technically sound. Cunha himself is facing an interrogation by a congressional ethics committee and his announcement came hours after pro-government members of the committee said they were in favor of the charges against him. Additionally, a congressman from Rousseff’s Workers’ Party said the party will consider seeking judicial measures to fight the impeachment.
The uncertain political and business climates in the country only intensified the negative trajectory of the Brazilian economy. The Lava Jato scandal, involving corruption and money laundering allegations, broke at the start of the year and renewed public clamor to end corruption in the government. The economy was due for a cyclical correction, but this one coincided with low commodity prices, a weak Brazilian real and a corruption scandal that set back contracts and projects of some of the most major companies in the country. A day before Cunha’s announcement, official economic figures showed that Brazil’s GDP had declined by 4.5 percent year-on-year in the third quarter. The fundamental problems dragging down the Brazilian economy will not magically be solved with a new personality in office. While a new public image and renewed political mandate may lend some additional political capital to push economic reforms, the changes will only take effect over time. The government currently foresees the economy improving some time in the second half of 2016 and some private estimates event put recovery in early 2017. This timeline will not shift drastically forward even in the event of Rousseff’s removal.
While impeachment proceedings will have minimal impact on the economy, they will greatly impact the shaping of legal democratic processes in the country. The overall process will establish a precedent that such action can indeed take place within the parameters of the current democratic institutions. Brazilian military rule did not end until 1986 so the country is still establishing its version of democracy and fortifying related procedures. Arriving at a decision through processes stipulated by the constitution and having other institutions and government actors abide by these decisions will determine the strength and maturity of the institutions. Lastly, in terms of the social impact, these proceedings will likely encourage Brazilians to further develop mechanisms and styles of social protest in the country. Protests against the government have occurred on and off in Brazil for the last 30 months, with some of the most intense being in July 2013 and just after the 2014 elections into early 2015. Prior to this, such mass social actions were not the norm in Brazil, outside of labor groups. These protests did not necessarily have unified complaints, solutions or leadership. However, the most recent rounds had a general consensus to remove Dilma from office, reflecting a growing regional shift of leftist governments losing favor with the populace. At the very least, the decision to pursue impeachment charges signals to the public that, to some degree, the protests worked and made an impact in Brasilia. In the event of Dilma’s removal, this lesson will be even further reinforced. In turn, this further defines the means of interaction between the young democracy and its people.