By Mario Osava*
The Senate voted 61-20 on Wednesday Aug. 31 to impeach Brazil’s first female president for budget irregularities, putting an end to 13 years of rule by her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT).
She had been in office since 2011, and was suspended in May, less than halfway through her second term.Her predecessor was the PT’s founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011).
Michel Temer, who was Rousseff’s vice president and served as interim president since May 12, was sworn in on Wednesday as the country’s new leader. He will face challenges that require unpopular measures.
A large part of the lawmakers belonging to the parties that back him are facing corruption charges or are under investigation by the public prosecutor’s office.
Temer, described as uncharismatic and dour, has been implicated in a corruption probe, accused of soliciting illicit funds for election campaigns of members of his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB).
The president and members of the legislature can only be tried by the Supreme Court and it is unlikely to hand down a sentence against Temer before the end of the current four-year term.
Temer is also facing a legal challenge from the TSE electoral court for alleged abuse of economic and political power while in office as Rousseff’s vice president. Reports of corruption aggravated things for both Rousseff and Temer.
The TSE ruling is not expected until 2017, and could annul the results of the 2014 elections. If that happens, Congress will choose a new president, to complete the current term, which ends the last day of 2018.
Operation Car Wash, which is investigating corruption in the state-run oil giant Petrobras and has led to charges against dozens of businesspersons and politicians, threatens to bring down a number of lawmakers when the Supreme Court starts to try the implicated legislators.
Until then, the accusations will throw a shadow over the legitimacy of a weak government subjected to bombardment from the left-wing opposition, which accuses it of being the result of a “parliamentary coup”, as Rousseff repeated over and over again during her impeachment trial.
The new government has announced fiscal adjustments, including a constitutional amendment to limit public spending growth for up to 20 years, which would oblige the government to limit annual spending growth to the prior year’s inflation rate.
That means economic growth, once Brazil has emerged from the current recession, would be accompanied by a reduction of the deficit.
But analysts doubt that the measure will be approved by a Congress traditionally opposed to austerity measures, especially given the fact that it would require a constitutional amendment, which would need a 60 percent majority to be approved.
Another measure considered indispensable to shore up public accounts, raising the retirement age, will also face heavy resistance in Congress and from trade unions and social movements.
Temer, however, has the support of a parliamentary majority strengthened by their victory in the impeachment trial and the vote of confidence they enjoy, for now at least, from the powerful business community.
On Apr. 17,71.5 percent of the 513 members of the lower house voted in favour of an impeachment trial; 75 percent of the Senate approved her ouster on Aug. 31; and similar majorities were seen in other votes prior to the start of the impeachment process.
Ousted but not banned
The bloc was only divided towards the end of the impeachment trial, when the Senate decided not to ban her from politics for eight years, which would have required a two-thirds majority – 54 senators – but only took 42 votes. The measure would basically have ended the political career of the 68-year-old Rousseff.
It was a conciliatory gesture offered by a portion of the new ruling parties, especially the PMDB, after the escalating attacks during the impeachment process, which began in December when the then speaker of the lower house of Congress Eduardo Cunhagave the go-ahead to the proceedings after accepting one of 37 motions to impeach her.
During the final six-day impeachment trial, Rousseff and her supporters described the process as “a coup against democracy,” “betrayal” and a “farce”, and called advocates of the proceedings “demagogues,” “irresponsible,” “liars,” and “corrupt” generators of “economic chaos”.
Rousseff argued that she did not commit any crime.But the prosecution maintained that using state bank funds to conceal a looming deficit and increasing public spending without authorisation from the legislature amounted to “crimes of responsibility”, one of the grounds for impeachment under the constitution.
Even legal experts expressed views that fed the argument that the impeachment was a “coup”, with some observers going so far as to compare it to the 1964 military coup d’etat that ushered in a 21-year dictatorship.
But the economic crisis, especially the huge public deficit that has built up over the last few years, weakened Rousseff, who was accused of concealing the serious financial situation during her 2014 reelection campaign.
Rousseff blamed the recession that began in 2014 on the crash in international commodity prices and policies adopted by rich countries, aggravated by the legislative boycott of her proposed initiatives in 2015.
Only voters can decide on the legitimacy of a government in a presidentialist regime, argued Rousseff and her allies, ruling out the possibility of impeachment, which was first used in 1992 to remove Fernando Collor (1990-1992) and attempted many times against Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003).
The fall of Rousseff and the PT “is part of a global decline of the left, which is stronger in Latin America, where governments are facing severe economic recessions,” University of Brasilia Professor Elimar Nascimento told IPS.
In the region, he said, “leftist thinking, which lives on fantasies of the past, and is incapable of comprehending change, is showing a lot of wear and tear” – part of a pendular movement after 15 years of mainly left-wing governments in the region.