Photo Jonathan Blair

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Brazil: Dilma's soft auto-coup

While staying as a figurehead, Brazil’s president has relinquished power and left the government in Lula’s hands.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is handing over effective control of the government to her mentor and former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. While on Thursday she formally named him head of the government's non-military affairs (chefe da Casa Civil), it is clear to all that he is now in charge and has become de facto president of the country. Rousseff, who was re-elected barely 18 months ago, thus becomes a figurehead devoid of real power. Institutionally, this development makes short shrift of the Brazilian Constitution, putting supreme executive power in the hands of a man who holds no elected office whatsoever.

Four developments have produced this astonishing turn of events. The first is the utter dereliction of Rousseff's popularity and power. Since her election, and in fact since the large demonstrations of June 2013, she has been unable to effectively govern the country, her utter political weakness in the face of a divided and ever-restive Congress paralyzing the government.

Second, the country is going through a shattering and multi-dimensional crisis. The collapse of the commodity-driven boom of the first decade of the century has plunged Brazil into one of its worst economic crises since World War II, with GDP collapsing by almost 4 percent over the last two years and, over the last 12 months or so, unemployment doubling, the currency dropping by a third, and inflation closing in on 10 percent. A corruption scandal of pharaonic proportion is shaking the whole political class and especially the ruling Workers' Party (PT), with hundreds of millions of dollars diverted from the coffer of the state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. To top things off, years of neglect of mosquito control is now blowing back as massive epidemics of dengue, Chikungunya and Zika fever stretch health resources and confront large sectors of its population, mostly the poor, to difficult and sometimes tragic predicaments. The challenges, in other words, would be overwhelming, even for a strong president.

Third, Lula's involvement in the corruption scandal was about to have him arrested and formally accused. As a member of the cabinet, he now enjoys a degree of immunity through executive privilege, which implies that judicial procedure can only be engaged by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, and under very specific conditions. Recordings of conversations between Lula and Dilma herself, made public by the judge responsible for the corruption scandal, show quite clearly that this was a key reason for his nomination.

Fourth, many analysts had seen the growing reach of the investigation into the Petrobras scandal as a proof of institutional consolidation, primarily around an independent judiciary. However, the growing politicization of the process, already visible in the controlled leaks, strategic timeline of arrests, and showy style of operations—including handcuffs for portly sixtyish businessmen—reached symbolic heights with the early morning arraignment of Lula for a simple questioning, which he had previously acceded to voluntarily, and with the possibly illegal publication of the conversation between Lula and the President the day before his nomination. The legitimacy of the whole endeavour is jeopardized, and the image of the judiciary risks being sullied. In that context, "saving" Lula by giving him power could almost take an air of legitimacy.

Facing huge political challenges and increasingly isolated, even from her own party, Dilma Rousseff is now relinquishing power while preserving it for the PT or more precisely for Lula himself. Implicitly taking the blame for the current mess, she may also offer a relatively clean slate on which her de facto successor can build a support base in Congress and muddle through the last phase of the economic crisis, which should peter out by the end of the year.

All this is bad news. Lula's ability to regain governability will likely depend on the kind of deals that led to the current crisis and feed the cynicism of Brazilians towards their political system. None of the reasons for his return to power can be squared with the country's constitution. Rousseff's legitimate path would have been a formal resignation and her replacement by the vice-president, Michel Temer, but this would have meant handing out the PT's hard won prominence to a man of the Right, wholly steeped in the old clientelistic manners of Brazil's traditional elites. Now, Temer himself could be forced to resign as a result of shadowy electoral financing manoeuvres, and new elections may have to be called. None of these options offer much practical hope in the face of the country's challenges but at the very least, some institutional stability would have been preserved. Roussef decided otherwise and chose political expediency over "formal" democracy. As a result, formal institutions are losing ground and "the streets" are taking ever more central a role in the crisis.

(First published on