Trying to understand Brazil’s political crisis

All around the world, it seems, the left is lost. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn finds his leadership under attack by the bulk of his own party. In France and Germany, once strong left wing movements look beleaguered. Faced by angry and disillusioned electorates the world over, the left seems incapable of providing adequate solutions. Instead the reactionary right is in the ascendancy. Who could, with a straight face, have predicted the rise of Donald Trump to presidential hopeful? The vindication of Nigel Farage, figurehead for an eccentric fringe turned scourge of Europe? John Harris dealt with these examples at length in the Guardian, asking if the left has a future in the 21st century.


However, while commentators wring their hands over the situation in Europe and America, little attention has been paid to the dramatic demise of another left wing leader in South America’s largest nation.

When Dilma Rousseff took power in 2010, she was a poster girl for successful left wing government. A former Marxist activist, she had gone from a victim of torture at the hand of Brazil’s military regime to her country’s first female president. Her candidacy attracted endorsements from celebrities as diverse as the actor Benicio Del Toro and the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello. As President, Rousseff, would take up from where her Workers Party predecessor, Lula, had left off. Brazil then was being celebrated as a model example of development. It’s economy was booming and it’s government was taking on the herculean task of dealing with the inequality in Brazilian society.

Cut to six years later and Rousseff (or, as she’s more commonly called in Brazil, Dilma) has been abruptly removed from power by her one time allies in the senate. In the end the result wasn’t close, 61 of 81 senators voting for her impeachment. Her mentor, Lula, meanwhile, as former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is known is set to be tried on allegations of corruption. The Workers Party (PT) once a dominant force in Brazilian politics and often seen as the leading progressive force on the continent, now seems permanently stained by allegations of graft and mismanagement.

On the surface the reasons for Dilma’s downfall seem straightforward enough. Brazil is currently in the grips of a brutal recession. Corruption scandals abound. Many Brazilians are angry; about the economy, about security, about a political class that seems to solely serve its own interests and line its own pockets. Dilma’s image has been irrevocably damaged. She’s frequently criticised as incompetent, unable to manage the mismatch of odd bedfellows that made up her coalition government and having failed to deal with corruption.

Protesters pose in front of riot police protecting federal buildings on Paulista. Clashes between police and protesters have already taken place.

Protesters pose in front of riot police protecting federal buildings on Paulista. Clashes between police and protesters have already taken place.

But it’s important to note, these failings are not the reason for Dilma’s removal. Her impeachment by the Brazilian legislature was on the basis that she had committed fiscal crimes and mismanagement that required her removal.

Essentially, these crimes referred to a series of manipulations of the budget, designed to meet surplus requirements and assign funds to government programs without congressional approval. The accounting decisions at the heart of impeachment are certainly creative but as Dilma has frequently protested, they are not actually illegal.

In fact the actions for which Dilma was removed were formerly established common practices in Brazilian politics. Former presidents, and many others in lesser political positions, have employed the same techniques without incurring dramatic consequences. while Brazilians have had to deal with many depressing reports of corruption, which have cast shadows over much of the political class, Dilma herself has never been implicated directly.

Her opponents have argued that while she may not have personally participated in corruption she is guilty of the “crime of responsibility.” She, the supporters of impeachment assert, must have had some knowledge of what was going on. Certainly, there is a self-righteous sense that Dilma’s economic management was either so crooked or so dangerously incompetent, that her presidency must be brought to an end for the good of the nation’s future.

Dilma and her supporters see less noble motivations behind her persecutors actions. While there is no evidence that Dilma was involved in or knew of corruption, the same can not be said of many of the figures behind impeachment. She fiercely alleges that the impeachment was brought to stop inconvenient investigations that were getting close to a number of political figures.


Brazil’s new President, Michel Temer, is a deeply divisive figure. Allies call him a pragmatist trying to lead the country during a turbulent time. Critics brand him “golpista,” meaning a coupist or plotter, and a puppet of establishment forces trying to seize power and put a stop to corruption investigations.

One of Dilma’s most vocal critics and a figurehead behind impeachment is Eduardo Cunha. As speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Brazil’s parliament), Cunha ferociously pursued Dilma’s removal. His efforts were somewhat hampered by his removal from the speaker’s role after becoming implicated in a massive investigation into corruption surrounding the state run oil company, Petrobras. He remains a representative.

Michel Temer, Dilma’s one time vice president, is another supporter of the impeachment. He is also perhaps the biggest benefactor. Temer, a 75 year old veteran of Brazilian politics, has been dogged by allegations of wrongdoing. In June, a São Paulo court deemed him guilty of spending beyond legal limits on his own election campaign and declared him ineligible to run for election for eight years. Fortunately for Temer, impeachment means no election is required and he now finds himself delivered into the most powerful position in Brazil. While much of the public is calling for an election, Temer has been sworn in until the 1st January 2019.

Much has been made of Temer’s cabinet. For many sceptics, they see Temer’s intentions in his selection of his acting cabinet. In such a highly diverse nation, Temer’s interim administration contained only white men. Temer himself is a populist. His party tends towards the dead centre, maintaining its options to collaborate in coalitions. But, on the left, at least, his appointment heralds at best a decrease of importance on promoting equality.

While, the political reasons behind impeachment may be suspect. It can’t be denied that there is support for it amongst a large part of the electorate. In April 2016, an opinion poll found 68% of Brazilians wanted Rousseff removed. The effects of the economic downturn have been harsh and Dilma undoubtedly bears much of the responsibility in the public’s eyes. Temer and his allies also strongly reject the assertion that the removal of Dilma represents a “coup.”

Protesters supporting impeachment earlier this year (photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

                                   Protesters supporting impeachment earlier this year (photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

However, while many may not shed tears at Dilma’s removal, there is little enthusiasm for the government’s new incarnation. Temer is a deeply divisive figure. Mass protests have taken place on São Paulo’s main street, Avenida Paulista, declaring Temer a “golpista” (the plotter of a coup).

The anger towards the sudden, un-elected change in government has been palpable here. Protestors brand Temer a puppet of the rich and the establishment. Leaflets and signs accuse him of intending to target the poor, to undermine workers rights, to serve wealthy interests at the expense of millions struggling during the recession.

While many protesters on Paulista displayed retro, far left chic (Che Guevara t shirts, Mao hats, etc. One teenage girl even wore a blouse emblazoned with Karl Marx’s portrait), many others were not radicals, but disturbed ordinary Brazilians concerned by this break with the constitution. For these people, they were not brought out by love for Dilma or PT (Workers Party) but by the idea that a coup, even a purely political one, is not a good thing.

Protesters congregate outside Sao Paulo's museum of modern art. Banners demand immediate elections and the protection of democracy.

Protesters congregate outside Sao Paulo’s museum of modern art. Banners demand immediate elections and the protection of democracy.

Police and protesters have already clashed, with water canons and tear gas being deployed. Rubber bullets are another method of crowd control employed by the military police and have led to some pretty horrific injuries as reported in graphic detail by Vice. On Sunday photo journalist could be seen carrying helmets and gas masks.

Over the last few years, Brazil has gone from a nation with much reason to be optimistic to one plagued by uncertainty and anxiety. Regardless of individual opinions of Dilma’s conduct, the fact is that a democratically elected leader has been removed, on controversial grounds, and replaced by appointment. At the moment it is hard to see what the future holds, but in Brazil, as in much of the world, the left finds itself expelled from power. The road back looks uncertain and, at this moment, maybe impassable.

While Brazilian politics may seem complex and impenetrable to an outsider, we’re talking about the biggest nation and economy in South America. What happens here has consequences around the world and, during this tumultuous period, it’s about time we started paying closer attention.


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