Brazil’s Unravelling Political Institutions

As the foundations of Brazilian democracy continue to crumble, it’s time we take notice.

By Gianpaolo Baiocchi

Tagged BrazilDemocracypoliticsProtests

In a country that has grown mostly jaded to an unrelenting sequence of spectacular political theatre over the course of the last two years, the events of the last month in Brazil have nonetheless managed to instill widespread shock. On the evening of the 17th of May, O Globo, one of the country’s leading newspapers, released an audio recording which captured, in no uncertain terms, Brazil’s sitting president, Michel Temer, discussing hush money payments to another politician, the former speaker of the house, Eduardo Cunha, who is currently imprisoned for corruption. Though Temer immediately began proclaiming his innocence, claiming the recording had been doctored, Brazil’s attorney general Rodrigo Janot jumped in, publicly declaring, that following Friday, that his office had been investigating Temer on charges of corruption and obstruction of justice, examining a series of documents and testimonials pointing to his having received and then funneled to allies hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from corporations like Brazil’s largest meat-packing company, JBS.

During the ensuing days, Temer remained insistent that he would not resign, yet the corruption investigation continued to expand, with the arrest of a close aide of his with a suitcase full of unexplained cash on the following Tuesday. A former minister was arrested, and two more have resigned as the crisis has spread. At least nine requests for Temer’s impeachment have been made in congress, though they are being shelved by the current speaker of the house, an ally of Temer’s. It has become increasingly clear, a little over one year after his predecessor’s impeachment, that political turmoil is far from over. It seems only a matter of time before sitting President Michel Temer also has to step down. However, the president was granted a temporary reprieve this past Friday when the country’s top electoral court cleared Temer from allegations of violating campaign finance laws.

Brazilians have long been accustomed to this sort of tumultuous political life. Even before last year’s impeachment of leftist President Dilma Rousseff, everyday Brazilians had come to expect daily political theater and palace intrigue. As the political crisis sparked by the corruption investigations unfolded, each meme-worthy political image occupied social media until things took a more dramatic turn. Wiretaps, illicit conversations, secret spreadsheets, a parked helicopter full of cocaine, the mysterious plane-accident death of a supreme court judge Teori Zavascki, and most recently, Temer’s arrested advisor, Rocha Loures, who has become known as the “suitcase man.” These, among many others, had all received varying measures of attention as the crisis has spread.

But in the latest round of events, those that have taken place over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets, demanding not only that Temer be replaced, as he once demanded of his predecessor, but also that direct elections be held. A general strike has been called for June 30th, and a very broad spectrum of national social movements and unions have announced a national formed a national coalition for direct elections. In doing so, they have harkened back to the same slogan that heralded the end of the military dictatorship three decades ago, diretás já, or direct elections now. Although these round of protests have, conspicuously, received far less global media coverage than did the ones that helped overthrow Rousseff last year.

The country is today at a near standstill. It appears that nearly daily, new pieces of evidence come to light that drive the current government into deeper crisis. But the political crisis that today engulfs the country calls into question not only the current government or simply the political elite, but the very legitimacy of its core institutions. More than one analyst has likened what’s going on currently in Brazil to crises of the twentieth century that led to long periods of exception, such as the twenty-one year dictatorship that begun with the military coup of 1964.

Those of us who argued against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff did so for two different reasons. First, while investigations had uncovered corruption and malfeasance on the part of all major political parties, the process was aimed nearly exclusively against the Workers’ Party. Parts of the judiciary, in concert with the conservative media, in the name of fighting corruption, fought a one-sided battle to discredit the party and its leaders, particularly Lula, who has survived the allegations and continues to be a popular figure in Brazil. What started as a series of investigations by politically motivated judges in the judiciary concluded in a cynical and hyper-partisan process that ultimately relied on vote-trading and alliance-building to convict an unpopular sitting president. The manner in which the impeachment was carried out weakened the legitimacy of the judiciary as an impartial body, and the rule of law as anything but an instrument to be used for political ends. In this case, it was used to replace a set of left-of-center redistributive policies with hard structural adjustment ones that had been defeated at at the ballot box during the last several national elections, with the victories of the once-revered Lula and, subsequently, of Rousseff.

The second main argument against the impeachment was that it did not stymie corruption. The actual legal basis for Rousseff’s impeachment was a technicality; it revolved around a fiscal maneuver that meant rolling over funds from one years’ budget to the next, a questionable, but widely practiced, accounting procedure in Brazil. She herself was never found to have foreign bank accounts or have received bribes. But the impeachment process replaced her with a set of politicians that were immeasurably more corrupt, and who emerged emboldened.

The past year has been a difficult one for the entire country, but especially for its poor majority. The economy has stalled still further and unemployment has been creeping upwards, while salaries have fallen compared to inflation. The Temer administration has, in the meantime, tried to push through unpopular structural adjustment reforms that had been roundly defeated at the ballot box during the last several national elections, with the victories of the once-revered Lula and, subsequently, of Rousseff. While some their Workers’ Party programs, like its Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program are too prominent and popular to alter or dismantle, the Temer administration has, nonetheless, pushed through a constitutional amendment that will effectively freeze social spending for decades and has attempted to undo Brazil’s labor protections and its public retirement system. It has also pushed through an aggressive pro-privatization agenda, including moving ahead with privatizing key parts of the country’s infrastructure, like its state water and sewage companies.

As people mobilize in the streets today, the argument in favor of direct elections is, at this point, nearly self-evident. So great is the number of congressional members implicated in corruption investigations that it is difficult to imagine that their selection of an interim president, as the constitution currently allows, would find much legitimacy among average Brazilians. The polls have, for many months, only confirmed what many editorials and reports have been arguing: Opinion surveys have shown single-digit approval rates for Temer, while surveys by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation have shown extremely low confidence in congress itself. If Brazil is to emerge out of this crisis there needs to be a minimum of buy-in from the population. The first step toward this would be to give the population the right to directly and freely choose its next president. This is a crucial juncture for other reasons as well: Several national assets are being privatized by the current government, changes that would be nearly impossible to reverse.

Yet even in this best case scenario, in which direct elections are held, Brazil will face another, much bigger problem: Its existing political institutions, at their core, don’t work for the majority of the country’s people. It is a political system tilted towards moneyed interests and with a set of rules that facilitate corruption and kickbacks. After all, the existing congress, in which 40 percent of the parlamentarians elected in 2014 have been under investigation, was elected through comparatively free elections. Brazil’s confusing political system essentially encourages the creation of political parties with no programmatic orientation or social basis; they exist solely for the purpose of forming alliances with winning parties in order to receive posts. There are 28 parties in congress today, most of which do not have any clear programmatic or political orientation. Obscuring sources of campaign financing is also relatively easy in Brazil: All major political parties have a second set of books for compiling those contributions. Major construction companies and other sectors reliant on government contracts make regular, enormous campaign contributions and play outsized roles in determining outcomes. Once elected, presidents must thus govern alongside very broad coalitions in congress, meaning they must work with parties who exist simply to move from government to government in exchange for posts, influence, and kickbacks.

For the last ten years, discussions have swirled in Brazil, thanks to vital social movements, around the urgent need for political reform. It is undeniably critical at this point that the influence of economic power over the electoral process be curbed, as well as the need to introduce mechanisms for improving access to the political system. There are several specific proposals currently under discussion, including the possibility of building mechanisms to strengthen the practice and use of direct democracy (such as plebiscites and referendums); the democratization of information and communication in order to reign in the corporate media’s outsized influence; strengthening public campaign financing; curbing private funding and cracking down on illegal financing. There are also proposals on the table for closed-list elections with gender quotas and limiting the creation of smaller political parties. Progressives in congress have gone as far as creating what has been called a Parliamentary Front for Political Reform, but they have, so far, never managed to gather much support for it. Former socialist Mayor of São Paulo, Luiza Erundina, was a key advocate of these reforms in congress, but has consistently expressed disappointment at the lack of support from the political establishment for it.

Brazil’s democracy is a relatively young one, and despite the current crisis, is one that has significant accomplishments. Pro-democracy activists have built institutions that, over just the last three decades, replaced dictatorship-era institutions with ones that, at their best, expressed popular will in ways more creative than in established democracies. Its current constitution, for example, was written with significant popular input. There are many examples of local administrations throughout the country that devised systems of popular participation and decision-making. There is a system of national councils specifically for discussing human rights, and another for combating homophobia. But the central institutions of representative democracy, as the current crisis shows, are little more than tools for moneyed interests with little semblance of legitimacy for the country’s majority. If the current crisis holds the potential to lead to any sort of positive outcome, activists will have to, once again, take up the banner of fundamental political reform, just as they did over thirty years ago when Brazilian democracy first reemerged from the shadows of dictatorship.

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Gianpaolo Baiocchi is an ethnographer interested in questions of politics and culture, critical social theory, and cities.  He is associate professor of individualized studies and sociology at NYU, where he directs the Urban Democracy Lab. He has written widely on Brazil, and more recently, on the United States   His last monograph, co-authored with Ernesto Ganuza, is Popular Democracy and the Paradoxes of Participation (2016: Stanford University Press). 

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