São Paulo, 26 April: The decision on President Dilma Rousseff`s future has now passed from the Chamber of Deputies to the Senate and, in just over two weeks, she will almost certainly have to step down from office to await the Senate’s final verdict, which could take weeks or months to decide. Impeeshmon, as politicians pronounce it, is not yet a done deal, but as vice president Michel Temer sits in the wings, openly planning his new government, it seems very unlikely that it can be avoided.

Temer and Dilma in happier times
Temer and Dilma in happier times

Et tu, Temer? Photo: Wikimedia

Reading Hilary Mantel`s Bring up the Bodies recently, I was struck by certain similarities between the process which led up to the actual beheading of the English King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, nearly 500 years ago, and the process which could mean the metaphorical beheading of Dilma Rousseff in Brazilia in 2016.

In both cases, the process was rushed through with unseemly haste – then because Henry VIII was in a hurry to marry Jane Seymour, now because the PMDB is eager to take power. In both cases a trial was held, but Henry had already summoned an executioner from France, and today Michel Temer is already organising his cabinet, before the verdict.

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn’s day of destiny in 1536 was May 19, for Dilma in 2016 it is expected on May 11. That is the day, according to the timetable drawn up by the Senate subcommittee appointed to consider the process, when the full Senate will vote on whether to accept or reject the subcommittee’s report. This report, to be prepared by a PSDB senator, will recommend impeachment. If a simple majority of the full senate, that is 41 out of 81 senators, vote yes, then Dilma has to step down immediately. The Senate can then take up to six months to investigate the accusations against the president and reach their final decision, when a two thirds majority is needed. During this time, Michel Temer becomes president and it is difficult to see the PMDB relinquishing power, once they have gained it.

On the other hand, the latest Ibope opinion poll shows that only 8% of those questioned want Dilma impeached and Michel Temer in her place. Instead, almost two thirds, or 62%, want new elections.

Impeachment as a solution for political crises has become quite popular in Latin America recently. Between 1992 and 2015 seven elected presidents were removed by this means, two each in Paraguay and Equador, one each in Guatemala, Venezuela and Brazil.*

Four factors are always present in impeachments, according to Argentine political scientist Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, of the University of Pittsburgh, who has written a book about the subject (Presidencial Impeachment and the new political instability in Latin America). An economic crisis, a big corruption scandal, mass mobilizations, and lack of support in Congress.

Pérez-Liñán's book
Pérez-Liñán’s book

Interviewed by the online website Nexo, Pérez-Liñán said that Dilma, unlike her predecessors Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had failed to negotiate an effective coalition in Congress. If she had been able to do this, ‘she would have been protected from the “perfect storm ” which now threatens her: the economy in recession, a corruption scandal that, even though it does not involve her directly, undermines her government`s credibility, the mobilization of vast sectors of the middle class against her administration, and a Congress which has abandoned her.’

For Pérez-Liñán, the main problem with impeachment is that once public opinion turns against the government, and the Congress wants to remove the president, it is relatively easy for the accusers to interpret the law in whatever way they wish.

“Impeachment is a process as political as it is juridical. In Spanish its name is juízo político, which is revealing. This is why Congress needs to be very prudent when it considers an impeachment. The irresponsible use of it creates cycles of political instability, as we have seen in Ecuador and Paraguay in the last decades.”

“The PMDB has released the genie of impeachment from the constitutional lamp, and the genie will not be easy to control”. It is useful for overcoming crises when it is obvious that the president has committed serious crimes, “but it is risky when it becomes a way of punishing weak governments, (and is) transformed into a political weapon available to any temporary legislative majority, like the vote of no confidence in the parliamentary system……. once pedaladas (fiscal manoeuvres) become a legal motive for impeachment, no executive chief will be safe in Brazil: governors, mayors, all are exposed. I suspect that Brazil will see new elections soon.”

Meanwhile, the other parties who voted for impeachment in the chamber of deputies, are jostling for a place at the PMDB table, and interest groups are already making their demands on the hypothetical new government. The bancada ruralista naturally want the next agriculture minister to be chosen from the agribusiness sector, but they also want the armed forces to be called in to settle land disputes. The head of the federation of industries want assurances that taxes will not be raised. The PSDB, who began the entire impeachment process, now find themselves in a quandary, because they also appealed to the Elections Board (TSE) to disqualify the Dilma-Temer ticket from taking office on the grounds of campaign irregularities. How can they take part in a government they are also trying to get disqualified?

Trying to make head or tail of Brazilian politics is a job for a contortionist. One of the coolest heads seems to be that of Fernando Haddad, São Paulo’s PT mayor. He believes that “the PT will survive the political turbulence, but it may no longer be the hegemonic party of the Brazilian left… It will have to think more in terms of the progressive camp than of the party itself.”

* Brazil: Fernando Collor (1992); Venezuela: Carlos Andres Pérez (1993); Ecuador: Abdalá Bucaram (1997) and Lucio Gutiérrez (2005); Paraguay: Raúl Cubas Grau (1999) and Fernando Lugo (2012); Guatemala: Otto Pérez Molina (2015).

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil