Brazil: Not-so-Happy New Year

By Matthew Taylor*

Brazil Basta

Photo Credit: Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira / Flickr / Creative Commons

A vicious combination of corruption scandal and economic malaise suggests a troubled new year awaits Brazil.  Economists estimate gross domestic product has contracted 3 percent this year and will decline a similar amount in 2016, while inflation and weak government finances hamper efforts to stimulate growth.  Two of three big rating agencies have cut Brazilian debt from investment grade to junk. Unemployment has risen from under 7 percent a year ago to nearly 10 percent, with forecasts of 12 percent on the horizon.  Efforts to reform fiscal policy are getting nowhere, and the champion of fiscal reform, Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, has just resigned.  The bonanza launched by the 2003-2010 presidency of Lula da Silva – seemingly setting Brazil on a unique path of state capitalist development – is long over.

The country’s interconnected scandals cast shadows on many of the leading players on the national stage, including President Dilma Rousseff.

  • Petrobras, the crown jewel of Brazil’s state capitalist model, is at the center of allegedly massive corruption schemes. Rousseff, who was chair of the Petrobras board at the time of the alleged wrongdoing, has claimed absolute ignorance.  But the charges implicate Brazil’s leading political and business elites, many of whom have been jailed in recent months.
  • A feud between Dilma and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, reached a new low this month after Cunha’s approval of impeachment proceedings against her. (His own ethics problems continue to fester.)  The charge against Dilma is not of personal corruption but rather that Rousseff flouted budget laws by using public banks to cover up unauthorized debt issuance and off-books spending.  Rousseff supporters have argued that the impeachment charges represent the worst of golpismo, or coup-mongering, and a constitutional overreach that threatens to undermine democracy.

For Brazil, 2016 will be dramatic and unpredictable – as the country weathers the most dangerous political crisis since the impeachment and resignation of President Fernando Collor in 1992.  Dilma’s opponents will have difficulty convincing two-thirds of the Chamber and Senate to oust her, but the crisis is already creating significant fissures in the democratic system.  The parties have been turned upside down.  Even if Dilma survives in office, she faces nearly impossible odds in restoring the credibility of her administration and party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT.  There are early indications that the PT will face a bloodletting in the 2016 municipal elections, and former President Lula, the party’s once-ironclad standard-bearer, has the highest rejection rate (55 percent) of any potential candidate in the 2018 presidential contest.  The PMDB, Dilma’s coalition partner, is threatening to break with the government, but is internally divided. The opposition PSDB is facing scandals, protests, and troubles of its own in the states it governs.  The newfound proactivity of prosecutors and judges is making democratic checks and balances work as never before – and is largely welcomed by Brazilians – but Brazil’s old party system may not be able to keep pace.  Rumblings for a rethinking of the political system will grow louder in the new year, as the crisis deepens.

December 21, 2015

*Matthew M. Taylor is associate professor at the School of International Service at American University.

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