Why Rousseff's exit may not usher in the change Brazilians want

Many Brazilians are deeply critical of their government – but not necessarily willing to support reforms aimed at long-term change. The senate voted to impeach Dilma Rousseff today.

Leo Correa/AP
A supporter of Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff holds a sign that reads in Portuguese: "Dilma stay" and "No to the coup" as she stands in front the official presidential residence in Brasilia Wednesday.

When Dilma Rousseff was first elected president in 2010, it was against the backdrop of a country on the rise.

Six years later, millions of citizens are hoping that Ms. Roussseff’s removal from office today will be the first step in getting Brazil’s lagging economy and divided politics back on track.

The first female president and a former leftist guerrilla tortured under Brazil’s dictatorship, Rousseff has played an important role in solidifying parts of the legacy of her Worker’s Party (PT). She expanded some of the social policies of her predecessor, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and added her own initiatives in an effort to draw millions of Brazilians out of poverty. She emphasized human rights, overseeing the nation’s 2012 truth commission, and spoke frequently about the importance of combating corruption.

That, however, may not be how history remembers her – a result, in part, of how divisive the impeachment proceedings have been for Brazil.

“I’m afraid she will be remembered mainly as the first Brazilian president to be impeached from office,” says Marieke Riethof, lecturer in Latin American politics at the University of Liverpool. 

The senate voted 61 to 20 to remover her from office today, after grilling the suspended president for 14 hours Monday on her management of the nation’s budget. That was followed Tuesday by a full day of tearful pleas and unbridled insults from lawyers as well as testimony by nearly all of the country’s 81 senators.

But while the impeachment may forever be Rousseff’s tagline, it is unlikely to deliver the deep changes that could remedy the nation’s crises, analysts say.

The government is going to change, but the political system likely won’t, says Matthew Taylor, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, who studies corruption in Brazil. 

For nearly a decade, “Brazil had the luxury of growing, expanding the social pie without many hard choices. But [the] limits of that expansion are becoming ever clearer,” Mr. Taylor says.

“Brazilians know they need to undertake some kind of reform, but it’s the classic ‘not in my back yard’ scenario. They’re willing to see others [like Rousseff] pay the price, but they are not willing” to make hard choices themselves, like reforming the vast multiparty political system or capping federal spending.

What about democracy?

Despite the relative silence in the streets since Rousseff was suspended from office last spring, protesters turned out anew this week to voice their concerns about their country's democracy.

“They’re taking [out] a democratically-elected president and are trying to silence the people,” says Raimundo Bonfim, head of the Popular Movements' Central, a social organizing network, who was at an anti-impeachment protest in São Paolo Tuesday.

But even those mobilizing against impeachment said they felt the battle was already lost. “There’s no way to put Dilma back in office now, the coup has been finalized,” says Jussara Oliveira, a teacher, referring to the impeachment in the same language as Rousseff, who called the proceedings against her a “constitutional coup.”

“By Dilma’s account [her impeachment] is a terrible precedent for democracy. By the opposition’s account, it’s a blessing. I think the truth lies somewhere in between,” says Taylor. “The institutions are working the way they were designed [to work], but the politicization of the process is a concern for Brazilian democracy.” 

Rousseff is accused of manipulating the national budget by delaying repayments on state loans. While illegal, it's a practice that politicians at all levels of government in Brazil employ. And many say the allegations against her are a blip compared to the corruption charges that more than 300 current and former politicians face in the colossal “Car Wash” kickback scheme between construction companies, the state oil company, and politicians. 

“No one accused Dilma of enriching [herself] at the government’s expense, but of injuring the Constitution, disrespecting fiscal responsibility,” says businessman Renato Teixeira, standing on the bustling Avenida Paulista.

Removing Rousseff from office definitively this week will allow the country to return to growth, Mr. Teixeira says. "I do not agree with this whole process. There was a lot of arbitrariness and wrongdoing during this impeachment, but she was not a good president and it will be better for the country."

How personal factors made her vulnerable

Brazil’s deeply divided views on Rousseff’s impeachment reflect dissatisfaction with politics as a whole, analysts say.

“If you look at her approval ratings compared to [interim President Michel] Temer, they are more or less the same,” says Ms. Riethof. “That’s an indication that people are on one hand unhappy with her as a politician, but also dissatisfied with the quality of government in Brazil as a whole.”

The protests and polarization that have swept the country since 2012 reflect not only a frustration with an economic downturn that has left citizens struggling to make ends meet, but “an electoral system that makes it very hard for voters to be heard,” Taylor says.

Since Rousseff kicked off her second term in office in 2014, Brazil has faced deteriorating international demand for the commodities that fed its growth over the previous decade. The economy tanked, and the costs of Workers Party hallmarks like social programming, expanding credit for the poor, and lowering labor taxes in certain sectors became untenable. And the pile-up of corruption scandals implicating nearly every political party across the spectrum has created a backdrop of mistrust, even if Rousseff has not been directly implicated. 

But personal factors also fed into her vulnerability.

“Dilma has many qualities – and we saw a lot of them in her speech [Monday] – but the big defect she has is that she is not a politician,” says Taylor. Her first time running for elected office was during her 2010 presidential bid, although she’d served in former President da Silva’s administration as energy minister and chief of staff.

“She has been abysmal at coalition relations in a context where … she needed to be out there making concessions to keep it together,” Taylor says. “Part of it is personality. One of her best attributes may also be one of her worst: her tenacity, and on the flip side, stubbornness.”

For dentist Rogerio Bittencourt, out demonstrating in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment this week, her removal should spur larger-scale changes and send a message to politicians that they will be held accountable.

"Brazil needs an efficient mechanism of recall, as does any decent democracy.”

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