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Brazil — how long for Dilma?

SourceJan Rocha


If ever anyone had an annus horribilis, it is Dilma.  Not so long ago it seemed she would limp through the next three years of her mandate as a lame duck but now it seems quite possible that she will not survive until the end of this year. As she is reviled and ridiculed by the mainstream media, even her closest allies despair at the president’s unwavering ability to do the wrong thing, to shoot herself in the foot, to alienate her own supporters. Vice-president Michel Temer said at a meeting of business leaders that it was unlikely that Dilma would conclude her mandate if the economic and political situation did not improve by mid-2016. Of course, he is the man waiting in the wings, the heir to the throne if it becomes empty, but even so many will agree with him. Dilma’s popularity ratings have plunged to 10%. Other political leaders fare little better in the opinion Dilma -- battling to survivepolls but she is the one blamed for everything that goes wrong. This is often unfair, because Brazilians are often hazy about which government body is responsible for what. The water crisis in São Paulo?  Dilma’s fault. The dollar at four reais? Dilma´s fault. The high cost of having a suitcase wrapped in protective plastic at the airport?  Dilma´s fault, according to a young lad who did it recently for us.  And so it goes on… Far from supporting government measures designed to alleviate the economic crisis, Congress, presided over like a personal fiefdom by the PMDB`s Machiavellian Eduardo Cunha, seems intent on sabotaging them. A gleeful press has dubbed the approach taken by Congress as the pauta bomba — the bomb agenda. Far from helping the government reduce the deficit, it is approving laws that will increase government spending, like a 78% salary increase for people employed by the judiciary. The main opposition party, the PSDB, even voted for a law that would effectively have bankrupted the national insurance and pension system, by tearing up the principle of fiscal responsibility introduced in the 1990s by its own president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Nor is the government getting much help from its erstwhile supporters. Its efforts to balance the budget with savage austerity cuts that include slashing unemployment benefit and many flagship social programmes, among them the low-cost housing programme, Minha Casa Minha Vida, and educational projects like FUNATEC and Science Without  Frontiers, which funds Brazilian postgraduate students abroad, have been roundly condemned by trade unions and social movements, traditionally supporters of the ruling party (PT). The PT research centre, the Perseu Abramo Foundation, published a study, involving over a hundred specialists, that warned that the austerity cuts would throw the country into recession, weaken the government and exacerbate the political crisis. Many are astounded that a government of the Workers’ Party could choose cuts that fall most heavily on workers and the poor, while leaving Brazil´s regressive tax system untouched. Why no increased tax on the rich who pay proportionately less tax than the poor, they ask?  Indeed, it is largely because Dilma´s finance minister, Joaquim Levy, a former banker, has introduced a blinkered orthodox austerity programme that people on the left find it increasingly difficult to defend Dilma against the calls for her impeachment. At the same time, some on the left see big economic interests behind the demands for Dilma´s impeachment. They point the finger at corporations like the international oil companies, which allegedly want to explore the pre-salt offshore oilfields free of interference from the state oil company, Petrobrás, and have been thwarted by the PT government. Whoever is pulling the strings, the idea of impeachment now hangs over the country like a cloud, or a very visible elephant in the room. The Folha de S. Paulo newspaper even ran a special supplement on impeachment – the how, the why and the when. A dozen formal requests for Dilma´s impeachment have already been lodged with Congress, including one publicly delivered by the jurist Hélio Bicudo, once a member of the PT, now a vituperative critic of the party and its leader, Lula. The showdown could come this month  (October), when the TCU, or National Accounts Tribunal, will give its verdict on the accounts from the first Dilma government, which ran from 2010 to 2014. Normally, this is a formality and they are nodded through, but this time the TCU is expected to reject them, giving a legal pretext for Congress to impeach the president.  Ministers of the Supreme Court have expressed the view that this will not constitute legal grounds for impeachment but at the end of the day impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. It will be Congress that decides, not the Supreme Court. To make it happen, a two-thirds majority of both houses is needed. The newspapers are full of calculations. The numbers are complicated by the sudden appearance of a new party – the less than catchily named Sustainability Network, led by former presidential candidate, Marina Silva, which has finally been officially recognised and is already attracting politicians from other parties, including the PT. Other well-known petistas have left the party, saying they are disillusioned, like Marta Suplicy, a former minister in both the Lula and Dilma governments, who has joined the PMDB, declaring her intention to fight corruption. Although it seemed to many that being welcomed into the PMDB fold by the presidents of the two houses of congress, Eduardo Cunha and Renan Calheiros, both involved in the Lavajato corruption scandal, was an odd way to start her anti-corruption drive… If Dilma were to be impeached, vice-president Michel Temer of the PMDB would become president. Temer is engaged in a difficult tightrope act, professing loyalty to Dilma, while at the same time showing that he is ready and competent to take over.  There is also a possibility that he too, like Cunha and Calheiros, might be implicated in the Lavajato scandal. In a last desperate attempt to stave off the wolves, Dilma has announced a ministerial reshuffle. But it will not be an easy to pull of a defensive, rear-guard action.  Thwarted interests, including those of old allies, are up in arms: on Tuesday trade union organisations placed a full page advert in the newspapers protesting at the proposal to merge the ministries of Labour and Social Welfare, calling it a betrayal of workers’ rights. Whatever Dilma does, it seems to be the wrong thing. Like the Titanic, Dilma is steaming steadily towards the impeachment iceberg.

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Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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