Saturday, May 14, 2016

Brazil Coup: The First of Many Blows Against the People
By João Feres Júnior

Photo: Supporters of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva confront police officers during a protest in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on March 4, 2016

13 May 2016

Dilma is gone and it is very unlikely that she will ever return to power. The question that everybody is asking now is: what is going to happen to Brazil in the near future?

Understanding the impeachment case against Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is much easier if you have already watched the documentary series “Making a murderer.” The analogy is very direct. Like Steven Avery, Dilma is being accused of a crime and despite the fact that there is no sound evidence that she has committed it, the jury was bound to convict her. Thus, the whole debate about whether the impeachment is legal or not misses the point that in the Brazilian legal system, as well as in the American and others, someone can indeed be unjustly convicted of a crime even if legal procedure is duly followed.

The analogy stops here, though. Differently from Avery’s trial, Dilma’s jurors, the federal deputies and senators who voted for the impeachment case to proceed, resulting in her suspension from office, do not seem to care about her being guilty or not. In fact, many of them preferred to “dedicate” their vote to their family, community of origin, or God instead of referring to the subject matter of the impeachment case: wrongful fiscal management. Others cited the Car Wash corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company Petrobras as a reason for the impeachment, even though the impeachment case presented before Congress is not related to it. The fact that 303 out of 513 representatives in Brazil’s chamber of deputies are being currently investigated for corruption and that 49 of the 81 senators are in a similar situation gives this concerted action against Rousseff, who herself has never been charged with corruption, overtones of hypocrisy and surrealism.

In a word, Rousseff was the victim of a political coup disguised as a legal trial. And the plot paid out. Following constitutionally-defined impeachment procedures, she stepped out after today’s vote in the Senate and was replaced by Vice President Michel Temer for a period of up to 180 days or until the trial in the senate takes its course, which is likely to be rather soon. If she is finally convicted, an almost certain outcome, Temer will remain in office. In fact, he has already announced his 23-ministry cabinet, which displays a markedly conservative profile.

The parties that got most ministers in the cabinet are Temer’s own, PMDB (a consortium of regional political leaders with very faint ideological proclivities and a knack for getting involved in corruption schemes) and PSDB, the main opposition party. Under the informal leadership of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the PSDB has migrated from the center to the right of the ideological spectrum, first becoming ever more neoliberal in its ideology and second by allying itself to ultraconservative political forces such as the religious right, the pro-gun lobby, and the rural landowners’ faction. There is also a score of ministers from other small parties, all from the right.

Dilma is gone and it is very unlikely that she will ever return to power. The question that everybody is asking now is: what is going to happen to Brazil in the near future? Most critics of the political coup now in course are much concerned with the neoliberal agenda of Temer and his government. They are right about that. Henrique Meirelles, the new minister of finance, has just this kind of profile: one thing was to have him occupying the same position under Lula, another quite different is to have him work for a Michel Temer who is backed by a right-wing coalition.

Meirelles is just part of it. If Temer succeeds in amassing a solid majority in Congress, and that is very likely, this neoliberal reform zeal will focus on dismantling labor rights including abolishing a labor tax for funding unions, stopping the minimum wage yearly raises above the inflation, and implementing a huge privatization plan that will spare no publicly-owned company. But can he actually do all of that?

Temer will certainly enjoy a honeymoon with Congress, backed by the faithful support of the big media. The same media that lambasted Lula, Dilma, and the Worker's Party (PT) for years on end, is now eager to be benevolent with Temer, although his political coalition is composed of the most corrupt political parties in the country.

But this honeymoon is not likely to last long. Politicians in general, and legislators in particular - with no legal limits on reelection - become very sensitive to their constituencies’ moods when elections approach, and we will have elections for both houses in a little more than two years.

Temer’s coalition in Congress includes a mass of deputies belonging to small conservative parties, many of them with ties to Evangelical churches, which cater to a dominantly poor electorate. The country is currently facing a deep economic crisis with unemployment now on the rise. The contractionist economic reforms favored by neoliberals is doomed to hit the poorer sectors of Brazil’s working class harder and faster than the rest of the population. Thus, these representatives will soon start to feel uneasy about being associated with a government that is causing their voters to suffer even more hardship than they were enduring under Rousseff’s presidency.

One should not forget that Temer starts his term in office with a huge legitimacy deficit — 54 million people elected Dilma Rousseff, but the vice-president arguably received no vote. He was not part of the campaign at all. Always carefully keeping his shady figure out of the spotlight, Temer is someone that most Brazilians have never seen speaking in public. On top of that, a sizable part of the country’s population, including large sectors of the lower classes, parts of the middle class, the vast majority of organized civil society, and numberless intellectuals see him as a despicable usurper.

Temer’s lack of legitimacy, added to the unpopularity of neoliberal reforms, are a sure combination for failure — but here is where the utmost danger resides. He seems to know this quite clearly and is plotting with his close associates from PMDB and PSDB to swiftly move and try to change the political and the electoral systems of the country: from a presidential system with proportional vote for parliament, they want to move to a parliamentary system with majoritarian vote. That would ban forever the possibility of another leader such as Lula becoming head of the executive power. Cardoso and his followers have spent a great deal of energy deriding what they call the penchant for populism in Latin America. The majoritarian electoral system with its structural conservative drive will reduce congress to a set of regional oligarchs, who in turn will elect amongst themselves the prime minister.

After so many PT victories under heavy media bombardment, the political right in Brazil has realized that the popular vote is their greatest enemy. So far they have succeeded in ousting Rousseff, thus cancelling the results of the 2014 presidential elections, a major deed. That is not enough, however. Now they are going to move on and try to maim Brazilian democracy in its structural elements. They have a window of opportunity to do that until the winds of 2018’s election start to blow in the faces of congressmen and congresswomen of their party coalition. Therefore, they know that they have to be fierce. Do the progressive sectors of Brazilian society know how much fiercer their resistance has to be? That is yet uncertain.

João Feres Júnior is a professor of political science at the Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Políticos (IESP) of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), the leader of the Multidisciplinary Research Group on Affirmative Action (GEMAA) and of the Laboratory on Media and the Public Sphere (LEMEP), and creator of Manchetômetro, a media watchdog website.

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