Q&A: Brazil's president was impeached. Now what?

May 18, 2016 1 p.m.

Brazil's Senate voted last week to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, a move that suspends the president for 180 days. Rousseff, who is accused of using public bank money to cover budget gaps, now faces an impeachment trial. The suspended president is calling the situation a "coup d'etat” and maintains she didn't act criminally regarding budgetary affairs. 

The impeachment raises significant questions for Brazil's economic and political future. John Londregan, professor of politics and international affairs, answered questions about these issues and how they will affect Brazil going forward.

Londregan, a faculty associate at the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, is a specialist in the development and application of statistical methods in political science. He also studies politics in South America, with a particular focus on Chilean legislative and electoral politics.

Q. President Dilma Rousseff has been removed from office, which some are calling a coup d'etat. Do you agree?

A. Calling the impeachment a coup is too strong. The apocalyptic rhetoric is in keeping with a tendency by some office-holding politicians in the region to describe any effort to remove them from power, whether it is an election or an impeachment, as a 'coup d'etat.' That said, the impeachment, on the accusation that Rousseff sequestered funds destined for programs — such as the popular Bolsa Familia program of relief for the very poor — in order to diminish the budget deficit, takes place in a very political context. First, there are the unproven, but widely believed, charges of corruption on her part when she led Petrobras, the state oil company. Then there is the severe recession now afflicting Brazil. Prior to the impeachment, Rousseff had extremely low popularity. The impeachment motion largely succeeded as a result of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), part of Rousseff's governing coalition, joining with the opposition to impeach her. Conveniently for the PMDB, the suspension of Rousseff whilst the Senate puts her on trial makes vice president and PMDB party member Michel Temer the acting president.

Q. What does this mean for the country politically? Economically?

A. In the short run, it signals a period of extreme uncertainty as investors and everybody else try to guess the outcome of the impeachment process. On the one hand, every neutral observer who has studied the matter seems to agree that Rousseff committed the infraction of which she's accused. But Rousseff is neither the first Brazilian president to bend the budgetary rules, nor is she likely to be the last. Her conviction hinges on political considerations.

Q. Vice President Michael Temer has taken over. What is his back story, and what might we expect from him?

A. Temer appears to be adopting a more fiscally conservative policy, and his PMDB party is to the right of Rousseff's. He is a career politician with his own corruption vulnerabilities. As with most vice presidents, he was chosen to cement an alliance. He wasn't selected because the power brokers in his party were dazzled by his vision for the future of Brazil or by his personal charisma. He will likely move policy rightward, but coming to power under the circumstance of a highly politicized impeachment means that he will likely be a caretaker until the next election, with little political capital to invest in new initiatives.

Q. Do you think Rousseff will prevail in the impeachment proceedings?

A. The Brazilian impeachment process is very similar to the one used in the United States; first the lower chamber decides whether to impeach the executive. Once they have done this, the upper chamber holds a trial. There is one significant difference between the United States and Brazil, though. In the United States, an impeached president remains in office unless and until the Senate finds him culpable. However, an impeached president in Brazil must step down for a period of 180 days while the upper chamber resolves her guilt. Rousseff appears to be guilty of the irregular budgetary spending that led to her impeachment. Whether this results in her removal is an open, and largely political, question. Because of the persistent recession, she is very unpopular, making it politically expedient for the opposition and for the PMDB to remove her from office. However, Temer will be in a weak position to insist on unpopular economic measures, making it difficult to accomplish anything until the next presidential election.

Q. Can the Brazilian political system be revived?

A. It won't be easy for Brazil to reinvigorate its political process until the next election. At that point, the question will be whether Brazilians see politics as primarily a zero-sum game pitting an intransigent left against an inflexible right, or whether the harshness of the ongoing recession leads them to draw together to find a shared solution.

Q. What kind of legacy will this leave behind?

A. The Brazilian economy is highly regulated, and Brazil's distribution of income is extremely unequal. It is the nature of complex regulations that they stunt economic growth even as they create support coalitions among businesses that the regulations protect from competition. This makes deregulation essential to improve long-run growth, but very hard to enact against the opposition of its short-term beneficiaries. The Worker's Party (PT), which is a center-left political party, has implemented the Bolsa Familia program of relief for the very poor — to the extent that this program is kept relatively free from corruption and political manipulation. One pathway forward would be to keep the Bolsa Familia, providing security for the poor, while repealing the vast initiative-sapping thicket of regulation that daunts businesses in Brazil.

The most likely outcome is that the divisions in the Brazilian system will deepen, as politicians on both sides focus on who was for or against the impeachment, making the kinds of transcendental reforms needed to place Brazil on a growth trajectory even more difficult than they already were. However, one can hope that the misery of the ongoing recession and the prospect of an endless cycle of recrimination and conflict jar Brazilians into recognizing the need to find shared solutions that are inclusive of the immediate needs of the poor, while at the same time providing the degree of economic freedom needed to allow Brazil to prosper.