Brazil’s former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached on the 31st of August of 2016. The alleged reason for her removal from office was the delay in making payments to public banks for social programs, a practice which would constitute a loan and is forbidden by Brazilian Constitution, although done by other presidents. Much was argued from both sides on the subject of it being grounds for impeachment or not, but the fact is Rousseff was by then an unpopular president with low approval rates and basically no support from Congress.
The then vice-president Michel Temer aligned with the Congressmen from the right and was able to oust Rousseff. After a little more than a year, the conservative government that took over Brazil after the impeachment has been showing what could be considered a disinterest in the wellbeing of their citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones. With an approval rate of mere 3%, President Michel Temer is currently working to gain the support of 3/5 of the country’s Lower House to approve (308 Congressmen), by the end of the year, a pension reform which will, among other changes, increase the minimum age of retirement for men and women.
There is not much dispute as to whether the country needs a reform – most specialists are in favour. The problem here is if Temer has got the legitimacy to propose such reform and how it is being conducted; that is, without bringing the debate to society. Temer’s legitimacy is contested not only because of his low approval rate, but also because of how he got himself into office: the impeachment process was seen by many as a coup. Noam Chomsky, for instance, has named it a “soft-coup” orchestrated by corrupt politicians against a president without any corruption charges, on the debatable grounds of breaching the budgetary law.
Another reason for contesting the President’s legitimacy to propose legislation, which will have a profound effect on the lives of over 200 million people, is the corruption accusations against Temer himself. In an audio recorded by Joesley Batista (one of the owners of JBS, the world’s largest meat-packing company), Temer listens to Batista tell of bribing a public attorney without taking any action, gives the businessman privileged information about the country’s interest rate and seems to be giving consent for Batista to continue buying the silence of former Congressman and President of the Lower House Eduardo Cunha, one of the main people responsible for Rousseff’s impeachment, currently in jail for corruption.
On another audio, this one recorded before the impeachment, one of the main politicians from the PMDB (Temer’s party), Romero Juca, says that the impeachment would be the only solution to “staunch the bleeding” that was being caused by the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation, responsible for the imprisonment and conviction of politicians, contractors and entrepreneurs involved in corrupt practices on oil giant Petrobras. If it did not completely staunch the bleeding, the alliances made in order to bring the impeachment about were certainly strong enough to cause the impunity of at least one of the culprits for the current corruption practices in the country: Temer himself.
Twice, the Attorney General asked the Lower House to consent to Temer being charged with corruption, obstruction of justice and criminal organisation. Twice the Lower House denied authorisation for the President to be charged. The prosecution argued that, among other crimes, Temer and two of his ministers formed a criminal organisation with the objective of collecting bribes estimated in R$ 587 million (around £ 130 million).
To remain in office, Temer resorts to the same strategy that put him there in the first place: dubious alliances with conservative congressmen formed among others by agribusiness and religious representatives. What makes matters worse today is the power that he has gotten to make such alliances. In order to protect himself and avoid being charged with corruption, the President released funds for congressmen to be applied in their electoral districts, a practice which brings great political gain for the congressmen who, in turn, voted against the charges.
One of the cruelest measures taken by Temer in order to please allies and remain in office is possibly the decree that has softened Brazilian legislation against slave-like labour. This was done to appease the agribusiness bench in the Lower House and could close approximately 70% of cases that are currently under investigation in the country. Among the criteria that used to be utilized to define slave-like conditions of labour in Brazil were debt bondage and work conditions that are degrading to human dignity. With the changes, the definition may be limited to the practice of preventing the worker’s freedom of movement.
One of the excuses given to free Temer is that his being charged would bring more instability to a country that already faced a serious economic crisis. The President’s austerity measures that aim to rebalance the economy are, of course, more harmful to the poor than to the rich. For example, new laws approved under Temer introduced a labour reform which puts negotiations between employer and employee above legislation (meaning less job security) and froze public expenditure for a period of 20 years, meaning necessary investments in areas such as Health and Education will not increase for two decades.
And now Brazil is about to start another presidential race. General elections will take place in October 2018. Two candidates currently stand out: Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, iconic Workers’ Party leader and former President of Brazil, and Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman from the far-right who, among others, has said that he would not rape a congresswoman because she was not worth it, because she was too ugly and did not “deserve it”. He has, during the impeachment vote in the Lower House, paid huge compliments to a colonel who is known to have been a torturer during the Brazilian dictatorship. He also believes that it is better to have a son die than be gay.
If there is one thing that Donald Trump’s election has shown us, it is that a dissatisfied working class and a disunited left can make even the most improbable candidacies gain strength. And Lula might not even be able to run due to corruption charges against him. If that is the case, there is no other candidate from the left that has the same political capital. It is fortunately too soon to tell, but Brazil’s recent history shows that in the country’s current conjuncture nothing is impossible, and Brazilians might begin 2019 with the most extremist President of its very young democracy.
Paula Moraes Bittar came to study in the UK on a Chevening Scholarship. She is a recent graduate of the MA Political Communication at Goldsmiths and has been a broadcast journalist in Brazil for over ten years.