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.

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

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.

Brazil: Sacrificing Anti-Poverty Success?

By Hayley Jones*

Bolsa Familia

Photo Credit: Senado Federal / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s flagship antipoverty program, the Bolsa Família, faces an uncertain future as the government of Interim President Michel Temer confronts adverse economic and political circumstances.  The program, which provides direct cash benefits to poor households on the condition that children fulfill education and health-related targets, was an important factor in Brazil’s progress on poverty and inequality since the early 2000s – between 2001 and 2013 the poverty headcount ratio declined from 24.7 percent to 8.9 percent, and the Gini coefficient declined from 59.3 to 52.9.  The Bolsa Família (formerly called Bolsa Escola) was a pioneer in the use of cash transfers in social policy in the 1990s.  The idea is enticingly simple: the cash allows families to meet immediate needs, while the education and health conditions ensure poor children are better equipped to lift themselves out of poverty in the long run.  Under Presidents Lula and Dilma, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) put the policy at the heart of its platform, and reaped advantages at the polls with the expansion of coverage and benefits.  The program now reaches about one-quarter of the population.

The social gains made in part thanks to the Bolsa Família may now be at risk.  Brazil has been hit hard by the collapse of commodity and oil prices over the last two years and is currently experiencing what is predicted to be the country’s worst recession since the 1930s.  GDP fell by roughly 4 percent in 2015 and is expected to do the same in 2016.  The deep political crisis gripping the country since earlier this year further threatens the program.  Temer, his party (PMDB), and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles have stressed the need to cut spending to reduce the deficit.  While many areas of social spending, such as pensions and education, are protected in the budget under the 1988 Constitution,  the Bolsa Família is not.  With the large political constituency benefitting from the program, there is likely little appetite in the interim government to ax the program altogether.  In fact, at the end of June Temer announced a 12.5 percent increase to the Bolsa Família – more than the 9 percent promised by Dilma – to compensate for inflation.  But he also emphasized that benefits should be temporary and that there is a need to focus on exit doors from the program.  Social Development Minister, Osmar Terra, has suggested that the program could be made more efficient and costs cut by 10 percent.

Temer may not be entirely wrong to highlight the need for exit strategies, but they should be exit strategies from poverty rather than from the Bolsa Família itself.  There is so far little evidence that it has done much to change the life trajectories of poor young people that would allow them to move out of poverty. The emphasis on increased school enrollment and attendance as transformative obscures much deeper problems, including poor school progression and completion rates in low-quality schools, a lack of educational infrastructure and resources, poorly trained teachers, and outdated curricula, among others.  If Temer is serious about moving beneficiaries out of poverty and the program, priority will have to be given to correcting regressive spending in public education (which prioritizes higher over basic education); better aligning curricula with labor market demand; and addressing the poor job opportunities for low- and semi-skilled workers. Economic realities and the rhetoric on efficiency and exit strategies do not bode well for such changes.  Under Temer, the Bolsa Família seems likely be limited to a policy tool for risk insurance and meeting basic needs rather than a platform for extending the social gains of the last decade.

July 12, 2016

*Hayley Jones is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.  Her thesis examines long-term poverty reduction in the Bolsa Família program.

Political Upheaval in South America

By Eric Hershberg

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Thousands of protesters in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Google Images / Creative Commons

2016 is proving to be this century’s most complicated year to date for South American political systems, and the coming months will be critical to assessing how well the region’s democracies can govern amid declining economic conditions and spiraling corruption scandals.  Brazil and Venezuela – two very different systems with very different problems – are suffering the most visible crises.

  • In Venezuela, where the Bolivarian project has descended into an incompetent Putinism in the tropics, is collapsing under the weight of monumental mismanagement of the economy. Many of the ills of the Venezuelan petrostate predate Chavismo, but during a collapse in oil prices President Maduro has doubled-down on profligate economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, bringing the country to catastrophe made worse by increasingly draconian repression of loyal and disloyal opposition alike.
  • President Dilma Rousseff’s mismanagement of coalitions in a presidential system predicated on coalition-building has opened the way to political and economic implosion in Brazil.  Contrary to the fervent assertions of important segments of the Workers Party (PT), her impeachment does not precisely constitute a coup, but it may indeed amount to an ill-advised bending of institutional mechanisms by cynical legislators and aggressive judges, egged on by rightist sectors whose commitment to democracy is in fact dubious.  Dilma didn’t invent the corruption and footloose budgetary practices that have been her undoing, but her fall does respond to overwhelming popular rejection of her performance.  Interim President Temer’s appointment of an entirely white male cabinet that includes representatives of some of the country’s most retrograde interests suggests abandonment of many of the most laudable achievements of more than a decade under PT rule – and more backlash as well.

Other institutional crises may be on the horizon.  Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa pursued a high-risk strategy of debt-driven expansion of the state, which is not sustainable amid economic contraction.  Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s honeymoon may prove short-lived.  Much-needed economic reforms are likely to provoke even greater inflation and have already stoked resistance from the Peronist opposition.  Macri enjoys some unprecedented assets – for the first time non-Peronists also control the city and province of Buenos Aires– but Argentine public opinion overwhelmingly favors statist economic policies that he aims to dismantle, and no non-Peronist elected president has completed his term in office since the rise of Peronism as a political force.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, wounded by a drop in mineral export revenues and comparatively minor corruption allegations involving her daughter-in-law, reshuffled her cabinet earlier this month but continues to tank in the polls.  Latinobarómetro reports that 70 percent of Chileans believe their political system doesn’t work.

It’s not hard to envision other relatively stable South American democracies facing hard times ahead.  The June 5 presidential runoff in Peru could leave the country deeply polarized, especially if Keiko Fujimori, heiress to the country’s darkest episode in recent history, wins.  It is not a foregone conclusion that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his second term on a long-awaited and much-needed peace accord, will secure its ratification, risking lameduck status for the remainder of his administration.  If the presidents elsewhere appear to be weathering the storm, democratic governance nonetheless faces important challenges.  It would be rash to predict that democracy will fail the test – and that such failure will give rise to a new era of authoritarian rule – but it’s clear that the region will witness widespread instability during the coming years.

May 26, 2016

Brazil: Daring to Look at Succession Scenarios

By Silvio Levcovitz*

Lava Jato

Photo Credits: Instituto Liberal (Brasil) and Brasil 247 / Google Images / Labeled for noncommercial reuse

Brazil’s snowballing scandals are generating a high level of uncertainty regarding the country’s political future.  “Operation Car Wash”—a two-year investigation by a task force of the Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutors—has already led to the conviction and 20-year imprisonment of several senior officials from Petrobras and prominent construction companies, and others are likely to follow.  In Brazil, congressmen, cabinet ministers, and the President can be criminally charged only by the Supreme Court, through a long, difficult process called “privileged forum.”  On March 17, former President Lula, under investigation for allegedly receiving two properties as a bribe from construction companies, was designated a Minister of State in President Dilma Rousseff’s administration, an appointment that would have afforded him that protection.  The judge pursuing him released a recording of a call from Dilma offering him immunity as well as Lula’s calls on family and other private matters.  Many in the Brazilian legal community have disapproved of the judge’s disclosure of the calls as disrespecting the rule of law and the right to privacy, but the damage to Dilma and Lula was done.

Calls for the President’s impeachment are surging—and she repeatedly rejects the pressure to resign.  On Sunday, March 13, a half-million people protested in São Paulo, and the press estimates that another 1-2 million demonstrated elsewhere around the country.  (Demonstrations supporting Dilma have attracted 100,000 citizens in São Paulo.)  The PMDB, party of Vice-President Michel Temer and President of the House Eduardo Cunha, is officially quitting the government this week, and other minor parties appear likely to do the same, definitely cracking the presidential support.  The impeachment process in Brazil has two steps.  In the House, two-thirds of its 513 members (342 votes) are required for “admission” or approval, in which case the Senate can decide by majority vote to take up the charges, resulting in the President being suspended for up to 180 days.  Conviction requires the votes of two thirds of the 81 senators.  Although press reports indicate the mood is for the impeachment, the government is offering positions and funds individually to Congressmen and in hopes of achieving a low turnout to stop the process in the House.

Predicting the outcome of such a volatile situation is inherently risky, but discussion of post-Dilma scenarios is growing increasingly common.  Should she step down or be removed from office, Vice-President Michel Temer would be her constitutional successor.  Like Dilma, however, Temer is being charged by the Superior Electoral Court on suspicion of illegal campaign financing and, if convicted, would not be allowed to take office.  The next two in line to succeed her—President of the House Eduardo Cunha and President of the Senate Renan Calheiros—have been snagged by Operation Car Wash and face charges by the Supreme Court, suggesting that they too could be disqualified.  (The Federal Attorney General has already asked the Supreme Court to issue a preventive order to remove Cunha because of evidence that he has received US$5 million in secret Swiss bank accounts, without any justification.)  That leaves Supreme Court President Ricardo Lewandowski as a possible successor for a maximum period of 90 days, at which point elections would be called.  As Brazil faces crisis after crisis, the press have taken to commenting that the country’s fast-paced, dramatic events make the American series House of Cards look slow and boring. 

March 30, 2016

* Silvio Levcovitz is a CLALS Fellow and political science PhD candidate at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas, São Paulo.  He has been a public lawyer in Brazil and is researching criminal cases of corruption and civil claims of administrative misconduct from 1991 to 2014.