Brazil: Is Democracy Under Threat?

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

A large group of Brazilians wave the Brazilian flag

A rally supporting former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2017. / Eduardo Figueiredo / Midia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil hit a new peak last weekend – resulting in former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision to turn himself in to be imprisoned – and strongly suggests that the country’s democracy is in deeper trouble than previously thought.  Lula said he was a victim of political persecution by both prosecutors and the courts, including the six Supreme Court justices who ruled that he not be allowed the courtesy of remaining free during his appeals to Brazil’s higher courts on his conviction on corruption charges.

  • Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) claims that the decision is part of a campaign against leftwing forces that has intensified since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August 2016. Supporters say that Lula’s imprisonment at a time that he is leading in presidential polls is the culmination of a strategy aimed at making sure that the PT – the only party to have won the presidency in elections since 2002 – remains out of power.  Most mainstream media and some rightwing lawyers have argued that Lula’s arrest obeyed all legal procedures, but PT supporters are not alone in their allegation of impropriety.  José Afonso da Silva, one of the most prominent non-partisan constitutional law professors in Brazil, has written a legal opinion against Lula’s imprisonment.  Other experts claim that Lula’s imprisonment order was strangely rushed (jurist Celso Antônio Bandeira de Mello), while others have expressly criticized the Supreme Court for denying Lula Habeas Corpus (Prof. José Geraldo da Silva Júnior).
  • While proof remains elusive, strong circumstantial evidence of conspiracy persists. The lawsuit against Lula was tried much more rapidly by Judge Sérgio Moro than most cases, and the guilty verdict was reaffirmed by the regional court just in time to keep Lula out of the presidential election scheduled for October 7.  Moreover, the accusations against Lula are fragile:  Moro argues that the former president received a $1 million remodeled beach apartment as a bribe from a construction company in exchange for political favors, but there is no evidence that the apartment was Lula’s or that he used it in any way.  Neither is there evidence that the construction firm received any favors.

Other indications that Brazil is experiencing an “open season” against the left are emerging.  Civil society leaders have reported repressive practices against them, including violent protests at their public events.

  • The assassination of a Rio de Janeiro municipal legislator is widely thought to have been carried out by rightwing elements. At a recent political rally, unidentified gunmen shot at Lula’s vehicle.  A wealthy São Paulo night club owner is offering a reward for anyone willing to murder Lula in prison.  Radical and angry political movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre are gaining strength by angrily advocating and celebrating through social media the imprisonment of political opponents.  Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who praises the military dictatorship, has become the new frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Another troubling sign was a tweet from the Armed Forces – issued the day before the Supreme Court’s judgment against Lula – that it will not tolerate impunity. It has been widely interpreted as the most direct threat to the Court since the end of military dictatorship.
  • Freedom of expression and academic freedom are under pressure as well, according to many observers. Local, state, and federal legislators are trying to ban the teaching of gender issues in public schools, claiming gender issues are a leftwing ideology should not be taught to young children.  At the university level, in Rio Grande do Sul a local congressman filed a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office asking that a course entitled “The 2016 Coup d’état” – referring to the removal of Dilma Rousseff and inauguration of President Michel Temer – be disallowed.

Democracies rarely die as a result of the acts by one or even a small group of political leaders, but rather as the outcome of repressive actors’ manipulation of popular confusion and anxiety about the country’s direction.  Lula may not have been perfect – he was not – but he deserved fair treatment by the government and fair enforcement of the law.  Democracies cannot endure when one group or another uses government institutions, even with significant popular support, to impose its views on others, often violently.  We should not forget that, in its early stages, the military coup in Brazil was supported by the media (at least by the biggest TV network in the country, Rede Globo), by civil society institutions (such as the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), as well as by much of the political leadership.  Radicalization, inability to dialogue, and unwillingness to make political compromises are the factors that made Brazil descend in 1964 into two decades of repression.  We might now be slipping down this same path, and witnessing the rebirth of institutionalized and popularly-supported repression and intolerance.

April 10, 2018

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and former CLALS Research Fellow.

Brazil: Will Marielle’s Murder Help Build Consensus on How to Reduce Violence?

By Marcus Rocha*

A woman with a microphone stands in front of a crowd

Marielle Franco campaigning in 2016. / Mídia NINJA / Wikimedia

The murder in March of Marielle Franco – a popular 38-year-old black, gay city councilor in Rio de Janeiro – has stirred outrage across Brazil, but debate over how to increase security has been stifled by political agendas and fake news.  Marielle and her driver were shot dead on March 14 in what press reports characterized as a professional hit job.  Some commentators have speculated it may have been retaliation for her outspoken criticism of the police and military deployments in the cities and favelas.  One of her final posts on Twitter called attention to police violence, citing the case of a young man gunned down by authorities while leaving church.

  • Tens of thousands of mourners took to the streets in Rio and other cities to protest. MC Carol, a black funk singer from favelas near Rio, reflects the popular anger with her immediate hit song entitled “Marielle Franco,” in which she sings:  “You [the system] want to kill us, control us / But you won’t silence us / even bleeding we gonna make it / marching and screaming / I’m Marielle, Claudia, I’m Marisa.”  (Original Portuguese below.)  Claudia and Marisa were women killed during police operations in favelas.

There is no consensus, however, over the meaning of Marielle’s death within a broader agenda of solutions to curb violence in Rio de Janeiro amid an escalation in federal intervention in the state, now entering its second month.  Proponents of President Michel Temer’s push to mobilize the military and other federal assets claim the Councilor’s murder justified the policy.  Opponents argue that Marielle’s assassination and other high-profile murders underscore that the mobilization has not worked, and, indeed, the deaths have fueled widespread skepticism.

  • A poll conducted by Folha de São Paulo newspaper shows these mixed feelings. Seventy-nine percent of interviewees say they support the federal intervention, but 71 percent believe that nothing has changed since it started.  Moreover, 22 percent of people living in affected communities fear the police more than they do drug dealers (16 percent).  Some 15 percent have more fear of milícias– the gangs, which often include former and current police that control much of people’s lives in these communities – and 13 percent of general criminals.  Of those polled, 28 percent say fear all of them equally.  Criminal activities like car theft and robbery have shown no sign of decline.
  • Complicating discussion of Marielle’s murder has been the torrent of fake news about her. Through Facebook pages and Whatsapp messages, far-right groups have spread unsubstantiated allegations that she had links to organized crime.  One Facebook page shows a woman and a man, supposedly Marielle and Marcinho VP, a famous drug dealer, as a couple.  Marco Feliciano, a rightwing preacher turned lawmaker, said during a radio program that Marielle’s death was “just another number” and offered a crude joke.  “They shot a leftist in the head in Rio de Janeiro,” he said.  “It took a week to die because the bullet didn’t find the brain.”  Brazilian justice directed Facebook and YouTube to remove some of the offensive profiles and videos, but fake news is still being shared through social networks.

President Temer’s official announcement that he intends to run for reelection in October deepens the political dimension of his militarized solution to the violence problem.  The federal intervention in Rio de Janeiro has become a key issue on his agenda, but the lack of results is undermining his efforts to shore up his historically low, single-digit approval ratings.  Investigations into Marielle’s murder haven’t identified any suspects yet, and there’s no discussion about changes to security laws or any other measure other than putting more army troops in the streets.  Despite the general outrage, the window for change opened after Marielle’s murder is closing fast.  The Brazilian political system is looking straight to general elections in October, and the speed and depth of the politicization of the assassination, aggravated by fake news, suggest prospects for serious discussion are nil.

[Excerpt from MC Carol’s “Marielle Franco”]

Vocês querem nos matar, nos controlar
Vocês não vão nos calar
Mesmo sangrando a gente vai tá lá
Pra marchar e gritar
Eu sou Marielle, Cláudia, eu sou Marisa

April 5, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a CLALS Research Fellow.

Brazil: Lula’s Conviction and Electoral Reforms Stirring Up Presidential Race

By Paulo Castro*

Large room in with many people at desks

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies. Presidential candidates’ TV and radio time in the upcoming 2018 election will be proportionally determined by the number of seats they hold in the Chamber. / Edilson Rodrigues / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Already overshadowed by the Lava Jato corruption investigations, Brazil’s preparations for general elections in October are likely to take place amid rising tensions – and perhaps even some violent protests.  Early campaign maneuvering intensified last month when a regional federal court raised obstacles to former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s candidacy, and electoral reforms passed in 2015 promise to fuel further disruption as election day approaches.

  • Lula’s appeal to overturn his conviction on corruption and money laundering charges was rejected by the Regional Federal Court in Porto Alegre (TRF-4). The ruling does not automatically knock him out of the race, but it drastically decreases his chances of running in October.  His best hope at this point lies with the Federal Supreme Court (STF), which has the power to overturn the regional court’s ruling.  This is very unlikely, however, because (i) a recent change in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law allows a defendant to be arrested if the original conviction is confirmed ; (ii) STF Chief-Justice Carmen Lúcia, who unilaterally has the power to set the Court’s agenda, has stated clearly that “overturning the Federal Court’s ruling against Lula would undermine the Supreme Court”; and (iii) the Clean Record Act (Lei da Ficha Limpa) prevents candidates from running for public office for eight years if they have been convicted by a second instance court such as the TRF-4.
  • The campaign climate is also affected by changes brought about by the electoral reforms of 2015, which reduced the campaign period from 90 to 45 days (with TV/radio time reduced from 45 to 35 days) and barred corporate donations to campaigns. These changes are likely to shift the balance in favor of traditional political leaders who already have national name recognition and have more influence inside their parties to get the few resources available.

Lula’s likely disqualification and the reforms have thrown the parties, especially his Workers Party (PT), into uncharted territory.  After 30 years of internal deal-making with his “mystical” name at the center, the PT will have to produce new political leaders and policy platforms.  For all parties, reduced financial resources and less TV time will increase the role of “politics as usual.”

  • TV and radio time is allocated in proportion to the parties’ representation in the Lower House of Congress, so candidates will need a strong party’s support to build a competitive candidacy. This suggests that the rise in the polls of Jair Bolsonaro – an Army reservist and congressman with a penchant for populist, authoritarian rhetoric – doesn’t necessarily make him a strong candidate; the small party under whose banner he’s running controls only 3 of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The center and center-right parties, such as PMDB and PSDB, will also have an advantage because in 2016 they elected the highest number of mayors, who can bring additional resources to bear.

 The final outcome of the Lula case and implementation of the reforms could ignite further political instability.  Lula’s arrest could very well spark a new wave of demonstrations, with possible violence.  Lacking resources, Bolsonaro – who has already advocated military intervention in civilian political affairs – will try to rally right-wing groups behind his candidacy.  Combined, these opposing movements create a dangerous political landscape that brings both sides of the spectrum to doubt the capacity of democratic institutions.  A recent survey by Latinobarometro already shows that only 13 percent of Brazilians are pleased with the current state of their democracy.  Perceptions that the Judiciary has been excessive in the Lula case and that election laws have only empowered traditional (and corrupt) forces are likely to feed into the sort of authoritarian rhetoric Bolsonaro espouses and cause turmoil that harms the overall confidence on Brazil’s democracy.

February 9, 2018

* Paulo Castro is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Brasilia, where he is focusing on the political actions of the Brazilian Supremo Tribunal Federal.  He has worked as an advisor and analyst in the Ministry of Justice and private sector organizations.  He is also a CLALS Research Fellow.

Brazil: Surge in Divisive Politics

By Marcus Vinicius Rossi da Rocha*

Two politicians debate

Brazilian right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro disparages fellow politician Maria do Rosário during a debate on violence against women. / Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Political tumult, constant corruption scandals, and widespread popular loss of confidence in political institutions have given rise to divisive right-wing movements that, although not poised to win office in the 2018 elections, are laying the groundwork to have an impact on Brazilian politics in coming years.  Brazil will elect a president and both houses of Congress in October 2018, after five years of economic crisis (3.6 percent contraction in 2016); corruption scandals (President Michel Temer is still under investigation in the Lava Jato probe); low confidence in government (Temer has 3 percent approval); and political instability.  Many observers believe Brazilian democracy could be in peril.

Two factors in particular – the economic decline and the odor of taint surrounding Temer and the political class – are fueling a surge in right-wing and populist politics.  Conservative and market-oriented agendas are, unsurprisingly, gaining momentum, but also are challenges to the country’s three decades of democracy, including the defense of torture and military dictatorship.  The surge is seen in three main areas:

  • The Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre, MBL) is a youth libertarian movement born in early 2014 following the mass street protests of 2013, which its leaders helped organize. While promoting free speech, less government, individual liberty, and market-oriented reforms, its agenda emphasizes moral issues as an electoral strategy.  It mobilizes protesters against left-leaning politicians and gay art exhibits and succeeded in shutting one event down on spurious grounds.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain turned lawmaker, is famous for his defense of torture and the death penalty, his opposition to human rights protections, and his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in 1964-85. Proud of his lack of political correctness, he compares himself to U.S. President Donald Trump, and he casts himself as engaged in a moral struggle to save the nation.  He promises to withdraw Brazil from international human rights agreements; opposes gay marriage; and wants to adopt the death penalty and loosen gun laws.  In a speech on the House floor one time, he told a female legislator and human rights defender, “I do not rape you because you are not worth it.” He was reprimanded by the courts for this and other statements, but a leading public opinion institute Datafolha shows him with almost 20 percent of popular support.
  • A handful of senior active-duty and reservist military officers also seem to be crossing the line with greater frequency, openly speaking about “constitutional military intervention.” These officers espouse a highly disputed interpretation of Article 142 of the Constitution – which states that the “Armed Forces aims … to defend the homeland, to assure the constitutional powers, and, by initiative of any of these powers, to assure law and order” – to argue that the Constitution gives the Armed Forces authorization to intervene in politics.  At an event a few weeks ago, General Antonio Hamilton Mourão said that if the judiciary does not fix the government’s corruption problem, the Armed Forces could.  The high command remained silent.

Few analysts believe that the 2018 elections will be obstructed in any way, but the years of crisis, compounded by the polarizing rhetoric and activities of frustrated conservatives, will put checks and balances to test.  A military coup is highly unlikely – the Army is not eager to run the state again – but the apparent politicization of institutions sworn to defend the rule of law could cause others to flout the Constitution.  Congressman Bolsonaro does not appear likely to score big in 2018.  His party is small, but his popularity could very well give a boost to similarly minded groups poised to gain ground in Congress. This could lead to more than a continued shift toward the interests of construction firms, financial system, and agriculture sector that support them; it could portend a dismantling of decades of work to build democratic institutions; end torture and police brutality; and protect citizens’ rights to choice, freedom from discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation; pro-choice laws, gay rights, and indigenous rights.  Three decades of democracy won’t be reversed easily, but the next several years call for healing, not a new politics of division.

 October 5, 2017

* Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and a CLALS Research Fellow specializing in the Brazilian executive branch and corruption in municipalities.

The Brazilian Roller Coaster … Still Heading Down

By Fábio Kerche*

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Rodrigo Maia (center), Speaker of the House of Representatives, gives an interview to the Brazilian press. If President Temer loses the House, Maia may replace him as President.

The political situation in Brazil is dramatic and shows no prospect of improving in the short term.  The Supreme Court has received an indictment against President Michel Temer on corruption charges.  A close adviser of his was caught on video receiving money in a suitcase.  The Chief Prosecutor, who had been playing a minor role in the anti-corruption Car Wash Operation, saw an opportunity to grab the limelight.  Rede Globo, Brazil’s most powerful media group, made Temer’s fall from power seem likely in a matter of days.

  • But Temer did not surrender. As Supreme Court action against a president must be authorized by the House of Representatives, the battle turned to Parliament.  Using means denounced as unethical, such as giving administration positions to people appointed by congressmen, the President won the first round in the committee with jurisdiction over the case.  The next step, in August, will be a full House vote, which could reverse the committee decision.

Regardless of the outcome of House proceedings, political turmoil appears certain to continue – and Temer’s conservative policies will continue to aggravate social divisions.  If Temer loses and the House gives a green light to a Supreme Court investigation, the Constitution foresees that he must be removed from the presidency during the trial (for up to 180 days) – with little chance of regaining the post, according to analysts.  In this scenario, his most likely successor would be Rodrigo Maia, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a member of a small right-wing party that supported the military dictatorship.  He has little experience in electoral terms; many attribute his victories in legislative elections to the reputation of his father, a former mayor of Rio de Janeiro.  His attempt to run for the executive branch in Rio de Janeiro, a more difficult kind of election than for the Congress, proved to be a huge failure.  He is signaling that he would keep Temer’s conservative economic team and continue an agenda that cuts workers’ rights – proposals that are music to the market’s ears but likely to further rile opponents.

  • An alternative pushed by social movements – a constitutional amendment calling for direct elections right now – would seem to offer a chance for Brazil to break its downward spiral. Protesters show little sign, however, of breaking the roadblocks that the mainstream press has created against the proposal.  The popular mobilizations involve thousands of people but are having little resonance on television, in newspapers, and on websites.  The government, press, and market do not wish to delegate to citizens the right to choose their president, at least not now.

By default, general elections scheduled for October 2018 still appear to be the country’s best hope for putting democracy on track again.  The chance that the elections will end the crisis will be undermined, however, if former President Lula da Silva is barred from running.  Convicted of corruption in a process that many observers claim lacked evidence, the matter is now in the court’s hands.  If the conviction is confirmed, the legitimacy of the elections will be in jeopardy.  Brazil’s political institutions will be further weakened as confidence in election results will plummet –more than in a healthy democracy – and the democratic game itself, as expression of popular rights and will, will be threatened.  There is no hope of improvement in the short term.  The impeachment without a crime of former President Dilma Rousseff continues to take its toll.

July 31, 2017

* Fábio Kerche is a Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.

Lula Convicted: End of an Era?

By Anthony W. Pereira*

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Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva / Jeso Carneiro / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s conviction last week on corruption charges was more than a legal decision and could mark a political watershed – the beginning of the end of “Lula-ism,” a political and redistributive pact that lasted from 2003 until 2010 which Lula has been offering to revive as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections.  On July 12, Federal Judge Sergio Moro found Lula guilty of taking a bribe and laundering money, sentenced him to nine years and six months in prison, and banned him from taking public office for seven years.  This judgment, the first to convict an ex-president in Brazil, was the result of the Carwash anti-corruption investigations begun in March 2014.

  • The decision will be appealed to the Federal court for the Fourth Region in Porto Alegre. This court will probably rule on the case before the 2018 filing deadline for presidential candidates (yet to be decided, but usually in mid-August), and is expected to uphold the conviction.  Lula would be legally barred from being a candidate at that point, although he might mount some sort of challenge to such a ruling.  Lula’s strategy for now is to press on with his campaign, to criticize his conviction as political persecution that was not based on evidence, and to portray himself as a man of the people capable of taking on the “elite.”

Lula still has great strengths.  The basis of Lula-ism has been his personal appeal – he captured twice as many voters as did his political party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in 2002 and 2006 – boosted by economic forces and public policies that raised the living standards of the poor.  With his finely-tuned ability to communicate to ordinary people, he showed that it was possible to both grow the economy and redistribute its fruits.  His government reduced poverty significantly, offered the poor inclusion in the consumer society and the chance of social mobility, and even achieved a modest reduction in income inequality – while promoting the interests of big companies.

  • But he may not have achieved the long-term realignment his supporters claim. Lula-ism proper only lasted for eight years, the length of his two presidential terms.  His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, ruled for almost six more years, but by the last year of her first term, poverty had stopped declining.  The current government of President Michel Temer has passed a constitutional amendment freezing federal spending in real terms for 20 years; the measure does not automatically reduce spending on social programs, but in the absence of tax increases that is what it has produced.  Temer’s own bribery scandal may take him down, perhaps within the next couple of weeks, but his policies raise a more fundamental question:  whether Brazil can return to economic redistribution, diminishing the severe inequality that still marks its society, without Lula-ism.

The organs of anti-corruption investigation and control that have challenged Lula, Dilma, and Temer – the media, the Federal Police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the judiciary – are neither consistently politically neutral nor free of corruption themselves.  They are not a Deus ex machina that can free the Brazilian polity of corruption all by themselves.  For that, Brazil needs political reform, further changes in at least some of the rules that regulate elections and governance, a realignment of incentives faced by elected officials, state bureaucrats, business people, trade unions, and the electorate.

  • The PT and the other two most important parties, however, seem incapable of renovation despite leaders’ awareness of the low level of legitimacy with which they are viewed by voters. The PT has few viable new leaders and is clinging to Lula’s candidacy as its only hope of a return to power.  The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) still nominally supports Temer.  And Temer’s own party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), is torn between defending the president in an act of self-preservation, and fearing the wrath of the voters in 2018.

Brazilians face a “trilemma”: they yearn for the three long hoped-for goals of sustained and successful anti-corruption investigations, political reform, and a return to economic redistribution.  Achieving two of those goals at the same time, let alone three, seems impossible.  The 2018 elections therefore will reveal a country in which anti-corruption investigations continue to knock major figures out of the political game, while political reform and economic redistribution are postponed.  The old cliché that Brazil is the country of the future takes on a new meaning in light of this somber possibility.

July 17, 2017

*Anthony W. Pereira is a Professor and Director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.

Brazil: The Day after Temer

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

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Demonstrators in São Paulo demanded the resignation of Brazilian President Temer on May 17, 2017. / Mídia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s political turmoil has reached new heights with the leaking of audio recordings of President Temer allegedly authorizing bribes to prevent the former Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, from concluding a plea bargain arrangement with investigators.  Although the recordings were inconclusive and Temer alleges that they were fabricated, their emergence was enough to push an already fragile government to the verge of collapse in less than 24 hours.  The day after the leak, according to press reports, four of Temer’s ministers were already discussing his replacement at a closed meeting with current Speaker of the House Rodrigo Maia, who is the next in line for succession. Some parties, such as the PPS, have already left Temer’s coalition. The PSDB, Brazil’s largest center-right party and Temer’s main coalition partner, is also discussing a possible withdrawal from government.  (The party’s former President and one of Temer’s closest allies, Senator Aécio Neves, was removed from office by a Supreme Court decision as part of Operation Car Wash.  (See here and here for previous articles about the Lava Jato investigations.)

  • Temer has denied the possibility of resigning, but there are a few ways he could be forcefully removed from office. Most observers argue that, however he departs, the Constitution would require his successor to be indirectly elected by Congress within 30 days.  Others posit, however, that if the Superior Electoral Court condemns Dilma and Temer together for illicit funding in the 2014 Presidential campaign – the trial is in early June and is likely to be the fastest possible way to remove Temer – then the electoral code dictates that new direct popular elections be held (as long as annulment is not declared within the last six months of their term, which ends in December 2018).
  • Key political actors seem to be favoring the scenario in which Congress indirectly elects the successor. Although very fragmented, the Brazilian Congress is mostly conservative or right-leaning, and many of its members fear that former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who polls currently indicate would easily defeat any other candidate, might be elected in a popular election.

In this context, indirect election would put Brazil’s political system on the very edge of legality.  During a similar crisis in 1964, Congress’s ousted left-wing acting Vice President João Goulart and elected another itself, without popular approval, in an act almost universally seen today as illegal.  That act ended up throwing Brazil into a violent military dictatorship that lasted for more than two decades.  In the current political crisis, if Congress were to act against the current rules of the electoral code and without popular approval, this could again be another step towards the establishment of an illegal regime, which could further curtail accountability and democratic mechanisms in the country.  Placing the destiny of the country in the hands of a Congress, with many of its members under investigation themselves, might be a mistake with profound consequences.  Popular elections would also entail great uncertainty as well, but the uncertainty of elections is an inherent element of democratic systems.  When political actors try to limit or manipulate electoral outcomes in the name of predictability or security, this is when democracy dies.

May 19, 2017

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and CLALS Research Fellow.

Can the 2018 Election Overcome Brazil’s Crisis of Legitimacy?

By Fabio Kerche*

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The Brazilian flag. / Club Med UK / Flickr / Creative Commons

The political and economic crisis punctuated by the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 persists unabated under the troubled administration of Michel Temer.  Stagnation is fueling unemployment, and the government’s efforts to rein in pensions and limit public spending are reinforcing the perception that the principal objective of those who ousted Dilma is to cut back on social rights promised in the 1988 Constitution and deepened by Dilma and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  Even more ominously, the continuing cascade of corruption allegations is also undermining support for the new government.

  • Surveys show that only 10 percent of Brazilians rate the Temer government as “good” or “great,” and that its legitimacy is further undermined by whistleblowers alleging that the president and nine of his ministers are corrupt.

The notorious “Car Wash” anti-corruption campaign is hurting more than Temer and his men.  Zealous prosecutors and judges are essentially criminalizing not only politicians’ behavior but, through aggressive interpretations of the law, the practice of politics itself.  The targeting of Dilma’s leftist PT is most obvious, but the deluge of charges is now buffeting all the major political parties.  Leaders of the center-right PSDB, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have been accused of corruption as well.  Except for some miniscule political parties, virtually the entire political system now faces corruption charges.

The 2018 presidential election offers the most plausible avenue for emerging from the crisis, but even that remains highly problematic.  There is a relative consensus among the political class and political analysts that a new, legitimate, and directly elected president could reverse, or at least limit, the deterioration of the political system.  With just over a year remaining for candidates to register, the likely roster is very uncertain, in part because a basic feature of constitutional democracy – that citizens are allowed to compete for office – is increasingly in jeopardy amid the current anti-corruption fever.  Early polls place Lula as the strongest among the likely candidates, and he remains in first place even when surveys include Sérgio Moro, the most important judge in the Car Wash saga, who has not declared himself to be in the running.  But it is unclear whether the courts will let Lula stand for office.  Right-wing media are hammering Lula’s alleged corrupt practices while downplaying those of Temer and his cabinet.  Potential candidates of PSDB have been denounced for receiving bribes and having overseas bank accounts, and their numbers are shrinking in the polls.  An alternative now being floated as a potential PSDB candidate is João Dória, the newly elected mayor of São Paulo who, like U.S. President Donald Trump, is a non-mainstream politician and businessman who formerly hosted the Brazilian version of the TV show The Apprentice.)

  •  This uncertainty – even if the parties resist the continuing wave of Car Wash denunciations and take back some political space from the unelected judicial branch of government – raises the question whether, over the next 18 months, Brazil’s 32 year-old democracy proves itself to be irreversible or to have been an all too brief interlude in the country’s political history. The apparent appeal of outsiders in an environment that is criminalizing politics is a worrisome sign.

April 24, 2017

* Fabio Kerche is Research Fellow at CLALS and Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil’s Prison Violence Reflects Deeper Social Problem

By Andrew Johnson*

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An interim detention center in São Paulo, Brazil. / Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

It has been a horrific start to 2017 in the Brazilian prison system, and reversing the trend will take much more than increased public funding.  A wave of violence began on New Year’s Day when 56 inmates were killed during a riot inside of a penitentiary in Manaus.  A series of deadly inmate uprisings followed that massacre, bringing the number of inmates killed this month to 120.  Macabre images of inmates’ decapitated corpses strewn about prison yards captured on cellphone cameras and posted to the internet reminded Brazilians that overcrowding, a weak state presence, and institutionalized gang power have combined to make Brazilian prisons – with over 600,000 inmates – tinderboxes ready to ignite at almost any time.

  • During a year I spent conducting fieldwork inside jails and prisons in Rio de Janeiro for a book and documentary film in 2011, I saw inmates crammed into cells at three and four times their intended capacity. On the worst nights, men unable to find space on the floor or a concrete bunk tied their torsos to the steel gates with t-shirts and attempted to sleep while standing.
  • The Comando Vermelho and other gangs controlled entire cellblocks and used smuggled cell phones and strategic visitors to maintain regular contact with leadership. This communications capability and weapons caches inside the cellblocks enabled them to act as the de facto government. Prison guards knew that they were outgunned and outnumbered, and they knew their off-duty lives could be easily extinguished by an order initiated inside the prison.  January’s riots revealed how thin the veneer of state control really is inside.

Impassioned pleas, prompted by the riots, to reduce overcrowding and provide more resources to Brazil’s prison system are being launched in a time of austerity.  The Brazilian Senate recently approved legislation that could freeze public spending for the next 20 years.  Public investment would certainly reduce the likelihood of future riots, but the crisis in Brazil’s jails and penitentiaries is not caused simply by underfunding.  It is the result of decades of the state treating inmates, and the residents of the neighborhoods where most of them were born, as less than full citizens.  Pastor Antonio Carlos Costa, leader of the human rights organization Rio de Paz, told me the state and public’s reactions to the many thousands killed by the police and hundreds murdered in prisons each year were limited because “they are poor people, people with dark skin, people considered killable.  These are deaths that don’t shock us, they don’t make the Brazilian cry.”

There is no excuse or justifiable defense for the inmates involved in the 120 murders that occurred inside Brazilian prisons this month.  It was an inhumane slaughter propelled by gangs, greed, and a power grab.  But the solution to Brazil’s profoundly troubled prison system lies much deeper than increasing public spending or reducing overcrowding.  Refusing to treat people as killable, gang-affiliated or not, is a goal that may take decades and will require a commitment that is much costlier than any public spending intervention or new legislation.  Laws protecting human rights would have to be enforced for all Brazilians, including prisoners.  Law abiding middle and upper-class citizens would have to push back and no longer tolerate some of the world’s highest murder rates and jails where 80 men squeeze into a cell built for 20.  Transformation this profound would be a difficult message to sell on the campaign trail, but anything less than that sort of social and cultural change from the government and the public will fall short of fixing the deeply rooted problems with Brazil’s prison system.

January 27, 2017

*Andrew Johnson is a Research Associate with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s Religious Competition and Creative Innovation (RCCI) initiative at the University of Southern California.

Michel Temer’s Shrinking Presidency

By Matthew Taylor*

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Brazilian President Michel Temer. / PMDB Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

Self-inflicted troubles are forcing Brazilian President Michel Temer into difficult choices between his party and an angry public.  When he became president three months ago, his game plan was simple and bold: undertake legislative reforms that would put the government’s accounts back on track, enhance investor confidence, stimulate an economic recovery, and possibly set the stage for a center-right presidential bid (if not by Temer himself, at least by a close ally) in the 2018 elections.  Allies in his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) would ensure that he had the backing of Congress to push through reforms that might not bring immediate returns, but nonetheless might improve investor confidence.  Sotto voce, many politicians also assumed that the PMDB would be well placed to slow the pace of the bloodletting occasioned by the massive Lava Jato investigation and stabilize the political system.

Last week, the public’s worst suspicions of the PMDB-led government were confirmed by a two-bit scandal that claimed Government Secretary Geddel Vieira Lima, who was putting pressure – with Temer’s help – on a historical registry office to authorize construction of a Salvador building in which he had purchased an apartment.  Temer sought to repair the damage by holding an unusual press conference Sunday in which he promised to veto a proposed congressional amnesty of illegal campaign contributions.  But Temer now faces another important ethical fork in the road: how to respond to Chamber of Deputies approval of anti-corruption legislation yesterday that – while originally intended to boost efforts to clean up government – neuters the reforms and prevents judicial “abuses,” a move widely seen as an effort to intimidate judges and prosecutors.  The bill now heads to the Senate, which seems unlikely to repair the damage and indeed, may further distort the bill in an effort to undermine Temer’s ability to resurrect the reforms through selective vetoes.  The reform package had been a poster child for the prosecutors spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, and it was pushed by a petition drive that gathered more than two million signatures.  Prosecutors have threatened to resign if Temer signs the severely mangled measure into law.

Despite Temer’s initial successes, the outlook for the remainder of his term remains grim.  The bad news is going to continue, causing the Congress and Temer even more sleepless nights.  A deal expected soon reportedly will require the Odebrecht construction firm to pay a record-breaking penalty for its corrupt practices (perhaps surpassing even the US$1.6 billion Siemens paid to U.S. and European authorities in 2008), and plea bargains by nearly 80 company executives might implicate as many as 200 federal politicians.  It threatens to paralyze legislators and further weaken the PMDB’s already decimated crew, undermining Temer’s ability to coordinate with Congress.  Economic forecasts now show economic growth of less than 1 percent in 2017 and, with 26 state governments facing budget crises, politically influential governors are begging for federal help.  A much-needed pension reform promised by Temer has not yet been made public, much less begun the tortuous amendment process in Congress.  Temer increasingly is being forced to choose between helping his allies and achieving reform, or satisfying a public fed up with politics as usual and baying for accountability and a political cleanup.  It will take all of Temer’s considerable political skills and knowledge of backroom Brasília to revise his game plan for these challenging times.

December 1, 2016

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  This is adapted from this CFR blogpost.