Why We Have to Question the Legality of Dilma’s Impeachment

Originally published on September 21, 2016, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)

Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo

What happened in Brazil on August 31, 2016 is historic: after a voting in the country’s Senate, Brazil’s democratically elected president Dilm Rousseff was impeached. In any democracy, impeachment can be seen as one of the expressions of democratic processes and a mechanism of accountability, and, if the whole impeachment process is accompanied by mass protests, it is often seen as the people’s victory against the powerful. However, when we look beyond the surface of Dilma’s impeachment, what we find doesn’t seem like a victory for democracy.

The Basis

The right-leaning mainstream media in Brazil and the opponents of Dilma’s Labour Party (Partido dos trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) were framing the narrative of impeachment as follows: it’s a symbolic victory in the fight against corruption and the beginning of a new political era in Brazil that will help it rise from its economic depression.

Nonetheless, the legal basis of this impeachment wasn’t corruption. Despite the fact various members of PT are indeed suffering from corruption scandals, Dilma remains one of the few Brazil’s high-ranking politicians who don’t have any corruption charges. 

So what was the basis for this impeachment? It was what is called creative accounting: the act of transferring government funds from one account to another with the intention to make the country’s economic situation seem better than it actually is. Creative accounting is not an uncommon practice worldwide, Brazil’s two previous presidents used it and in most democracies it wouldn’t be treated as a practice worthy of impeachment. Whatever the reasoning behind this move was, it’s crucial to know that a body of independent auditors was hired by the Brazilian Senate to investigate if Dilma did indeed use this budgetary trick. Their conclusions were straightforward: she did not. 

The Motives

If the president was found not guilty but the Senate still voted in favour of her impeachment, something here seems odd to say the least. The list of potential motives is infinite, the list of more obvious ones contains only two. 

The first motive is the official motive flipped over: it’s not to fight corruption but to put an end to a major corruption investigation that involves the country’s oil giant Petrobras. Interestingly, this claim is not a speculation. It is supported by phone call recordings where the former president of Petrobras and Brazil’s interim Planning Minister Romero Jucá says that the only way to stop this corruption investigation is to topple Dilma’s government. In the tapes released, Jucá even says he has already discussed this with the Supreme Court judges and the military which promised to help curb the opposition to Dilma’s removal from office. 

We have to stop here because this is undeniably huge. What we’re witnessing is not a trivial detail in Dilma’s impeachment but a true conspiracy, a proof that it’s not fighting corruption that the groups interested to see Dilma leave office are interested in and guided by. It’s difficult to overstate how deeply rooted and how widespread corruption is in Brazil: out of 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house), 303 are facing corruption charges, while out of 81 members of the Federal Senate (the upper house), 49 are accused of corruption. In short, approximately 60% of the country’s MPs are being investigated. One of them is Michel Temer, Brazil’s interim president, who after his interim presidency is over won’t be able to run for any office for eight years due to corruption charges. Another one is Eduardo Cunha, the president of the Chamber of Deputies. Cunha was the one who initiated Dilma’s impeachment process only to be removed from his position later on as he was arrested on corruption charges. 

Another motive in this impeachment case was an opportunity to steer the country in the direction of neoliberalism. In his interview with DemocracyNow!, Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer and an award-winning journalist, put it like this:  “[A]s a result of this impeachment process, the very party and the very ideology that the Brazilian people have over and over rejected, when asked to vote, when asked to consider their candidates, is now ascending to power. And their agenda of privatisation and cutting social programmes and keeping taxes low to benefit the oligarchs is now gradually being imposed, as is their foreign policy of moving away from BRICS and regional alliances, and becoming once again extremely subservient to the United States and to Wall Street and to international capital.” As predicted, Michel Temer’s government has already started proposing cuts to education and social programmes. 

Democratic Principles: What They Are and Aren’t 

Just like there seems to be hidden motives of this impeachment, there are arguments that its supporters make. The most common ones, at least in Sao Paulo, are two. One, the president had to go because she wasn’t being supported by the majority of Brazilians. Her ratings being low isn’t something surprising as the country is experiencing an economic crisis, however, low ratings don’t serve as a legal basis for impeachment in democracies, not on its own at least. In fact, it’s not uncommon for unfulfilled election promises and other reasons to make politicians’ ratings plummet. The voters have their right to dislike certain politicians, yet that in itself is not an offense.

Two, the supporters of Dilma’s impeachment say they want the economy to finally recover. They expect Temer and his government to change the course of the country’s economy, to make the country more appealing to big companies and investors. Once again, people have their right to think and to expect that, however, just like in the case of the previous argument, that’s not enough to impeach the president. Neither economic crises nor people’s desire to see neoliberal policies implemented to get out of them is not a legal argument. Finally,  at least in theory, the role of democratically elected officials is not to represent and please big companies or investors; it is to represent their constituents. 

One of the characteristics of a mature democracy is the way political losers handle their loss: do they accept it, because they believe in the very democratc mechanisms, or do they reject their loss and the validity of the victory of the opposing parties? Statistically, Brazil’s white and wealthy population was never a fan of PT and would hardly accept the country’s presidents, like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff herself. It’s not surprising that this demographic was very much in favour of Dilma’s impeachment and saw it as a long-awaited political victory. It was a victory they weren’t able to achieve democratically for over a decade. 

The End of Democracy? 

“[Y]ou can call it a coup, you can debate whether that word applies, but what it is is a complete reversal of democracy in a way that is ushering in an agenda that benefits a small number of people that the Brazilian citizens have never accepted and, in fact, have continuously rejected” says Glenn Greenwald in the same interview. The reforms proposed by the Temer’s government and an unwillingness to call for general elections seem to support Greenwald’s claim.  

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