‘Fora Temer’: is it the end for Brazil’s president and neoliberalism champ?

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People walk past a sign reading 'Out Temer' at the end of a protest against Brazil's President michel Temer in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 21 May 2017 © REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Do not despair if you don’t have a grip on Brazil’s huge scandal. Maria T Noviello argues nothing could have worked after the ousting of Dilma Rousseff.

Stability has stopped being part of Brazil’s political DNA.

Approximately one year ago, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached. Now, there are talks that her former vice president, new president Michel Temer could be ousted too, after reports revealed he is being investigated for corruption by Brazil’s Supreme Court.

However, if Mr Temer is removed, it is precisely because of the illegitimate ousting of Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff was elected president in 2010 as a member of Brazil’s left-leaning Worker’s Party (PT), succeeding another PT president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, or in short: Lula. Rousseff was then re-elected to a second term 2014,

Lula was PT’s first president, and was elected 32 years after the party’s foundation in 1980. In its early days, it started opposing Brazil’s military dictatorship, and then it steadily grew as the country went through redemocratization. its membership increased, as did the number of its legislators at all levels.

PT was strongly influenced both by its own ‘organic intellectuals’ – intellectuals working from within the party to come up with its ideology and arguments to defend it – and various experiences of participatory democracy and other innovative policies, such as the one in Porto Alegre. Furthermore, Lula, former trade unionist and party leader from 1980 to 1994, was a very charismatic leader and an accomplished negotiator.

In government (always in a coalition with other parties), the PT implemented policies aiming to reduce poverty, increase the size of the middle-class, expand Brazil’s consumer market and improve South-South co-operation.

Those policies helped Lula to re-election and to producing a successor, a woman – Dilma Rousseff. She had technical expertise as former Minister of Energy and Mines, Chief of Staff and as a member of the board of Directors of energy state-owned company Petrobras, but proved to be a poor negotiator with a legislative formed of 28 parties.

In 2014, not many expected Rousseff to be elected for a second term. Political fatigue, a lack of personal popularity, never ending allegations of corruption involving the Workers’ Party and an economy that was starting to flag pointed to her defeat. Her re-election visibly surprised Brazilian mainstream political commentators and opposition parties.

The same year, her main challenger, Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) – now the latest politician to be mired in corruption allegations – unsuccessfully questioned the elections results in court.

Since then, 50 different requests for Dilma’s impeachment have been put forward, before one was accepted.

These were turbulent times for President Rousseff. Although she had won the election, the total number of left-leaning MPs was reduced and she became ever more dependent on PT’s main coalition partner, Temer’s centre-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB).


Demonstrators hold a sign reading 'Out Temer' during a protest against Brazil's President Michel Temer in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 21 May 2017/ REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Rousseff was unable to elect her choice of Speaker for the Lower House, and the role went to PMDB’s Eduardo Cunha. Bills put forward by the government were struggling to get through a divided Congress, blocked or sabotaged through ‘pautas bombas’, the addition of unreasonable amendments and requests to bills. Some leaks suggest MPs including then ousted planning minister Romero Jucá, were plotting her downfall. All this against a backdrop of the Car Wash investigations of corruption and money laundering around Petrobras.

The economic scenario did not help, as a fall in the prices of commodities and a slowdown of the Chinese economy, together with internal factors, forced Brazil into recession in 2014.

In a bid to placate the market, Dilma ditched the countercyclical policies of economic stimulus during Brazil’s recession, further alienating the left-wing forces that had helped her win a second term in office. By March 2016 her popularity had fallen to below 10 per cent – it had been as high as 63 per cent in March 2013.

Amid conflicts in the Legislative, the PT approved an Ethics Committee inquiry that eventually led to the suspension of Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, then arrested in October 2016 on accusations of hiding approximately US $40 million worth of bribes in secret bank accounts in Switzerlandand for trying to tamper with investigations against him. He is now awaiting trial in prison. In retaliation, Cunha accepted the latest impeachment petition that deposed the President.

Though Rousseff’s impeachment relied on questionable budgetary technicalities, the mood created by the media led a sizeable proportion of the Brazilian population to believe that she was being impeached because of corruption.

Temer’s government has been mired by corruption allegations since its inception in August 2016. Nine ministers fell in the first nine months of government, and others could have followed, had Temer not fought to hang on to them.

Now, the president himself is being formally accused of corruption after a former minister in his cabinet accused him of exerting pressure to assist a top political ally in a property deal. He is also accused of conspiring against the investigations with a plot to silence the former Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha.

Meanwhile, during Alexandre de Moraes's tenure as Minister of Justice under Temer’s government, the budget for Car Wash investigations dropped 43 per cent.

As history unfolds, it becomes ever more likely that the left’s accusation of a media-backed judicial and legislative coup is correct and that its aim was to stop the Car Wash investigations, involving Temer’s PMDB, as well as many other political parties.

Despite corruption allegations involving the PT and Dilma Rousseff herself, both the Federal Police and the Public Prosecutors’ Office admit that, when in power, her government allowed these bodies to act with full autonomy and never interfered in investigations.

If stopping investigations (or at least focusing them on the Workers’ Party) was the main political motivation for Temer’s soft coup, a second objective became just as salient: to impose neoliberal reforms that would never have been possible under normal democratic circumstances. Mr Temer confessed it himself, but his confession was completely ignored by almost all of Brazil’s media organisations.

Related: A closer look at Brazil’s economy

As explained for New Internationalist in a previous post, the political pact installed with Dilma’s impeachment has allowed the government to propose a number of neoliberal bills and reducing the size of the Brazilian welfare state, the largest of all developing countries.

Judging by the statements made by Brazilian public opinion-makers in the media, part of the judiciary and the business and financial sectors, it is precisely this agenda that has silenced them on ethical issues such as on the present government’s legitimacy to carry out drastic reforms, democratic deficit, or corruption – especially considering they had been so vocal against the PT’s corruption.

However, the recent willingness of the Supreme Court to open proceedings against Temer has led to a split in the media, with mainstream broadcaster Globo ceasing to back Temer after supporting him for months.

What the mainstream media do still agree on is that the liberalising economic agenda must be concluded before Brazil returns to normal democratic rule. For this reason, the indirect election of the next President is already being promoted by the media.

This is in contrast to the wishes of many Brazilians who would like to see direct general elections. The latest polls show that support for direct elections, or Diretas Já, a slogan also used in 1984 when Brazil was just returning to democracy after a 20-year-long military regime, at over 90 per cent.

Globo, Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, is already looking, for someone ‘cleaner’ to replace Temer and push through this agenda without going through a new presidential election. Names such as that of the Supreme Chief Justice Carmen Lúcia, the former Defence Minister Nelson Jobim and the current Minister of Finances, Henrique Meirelles have been thrown into the ring.

The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff may have been a way of removing the PT from power before they were able to make another president, or even bring Lula back in 2018. However, those who did so did not consider the effects of such a brutal means of getting rid of a government. So far, the result seems to have been the near implosion of Brazil’s entire political class.

PT took 32 years to become the party it became when Lula was first elected. It takes time to produce new leaders and new political programmes. One might even think Dilma Rousseff won in 2014 not because of her merits, but because the opposition did not produce anything better than the PT had to offer.

If this is the case, removing Rousseff by force could not have produced anything viable. Despite incessant accusations against him, Lula continues to be the most popular prospective candidate in the country.

All the political meddling and interference by a political class that claims it ‘knows better’ has taken Brazil to the brink of collapse. The country is now in the longest and deepest recession in its history.

It is time they back off and let the people lead the way out of this mess by directly choosing a new president, and not be imposed a puppet who will follow the instructions of a few to economic salvation.

Can Brazilians resist the coup?

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Carnival against Michel Temer, Brazil's current president, Rio de Janeiro, 24 February 2017.

Corruption scandals, impeachment, power grabs, protest and a general strike this week. Mariana T Noviello explains the crisis engulfing her country – and what needs to happen.

The consensus among the Brazilian Left is that the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff was a coup d’etat. Though it was peacefully executed by the legislative, it received the backing of the same groups that supported the military coup in 1964: the judiciary, the media and the national entrepreneurial classes and financial sectors.

Direct moves to impeach President Rousseff were initiated at the end of 2014. But the process to remove the Workers’ Party (PT) from power began much earlier, in 2005, prior to the elections that led to Lula’s second term in office.

The so-called ‘Mensalão’ – a cash-for-votes scheme – saw some of the Party’s most important leaders tried and imprisoned under charges of ‘criminal responsibility’, whereby the Supreme Court did not need to show direct proof of involvement to condemn the alleged perpetrators.

Since 2005, the mainstream media has reported on the supposed corruption of PT members to the exclusion of anything and anyone else.

To everyone’s surprise, Rousseff was re-elected in 2014 by a small margin. However, 10 years of media demonization of the Workers’ Party meant that for the first time since Lula’s election, the PT and other left-wingers were unable to form a parliamentary majority.

The government thus became hostage to the votes of its centre-right leaning allies, in particular the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), Temer’s party.

A combination of economic recession, lack of support in parliament, and the Right and its media’s determination not to lose yet another election, set the scene for the impeachment.

Moreover the PT, once known for its strong grassroots links, became increasingly reliant on parliamentary support rather than its traditional base. Corruption allegations further increased the distance between voters, sympathizers and the Party.

Dilma alienated her supporters, who backed her re-election, by moving to the political Right in an attempt to regain the support of the country’s economic elite. Thus, the reaction on the Left to the impending impeachment was slow, lukewarm and rather late.

With unfolding events, it is now crystal clear the impeachment had no real basis and that two main reasons were behind the President’s removal:

One, to try and halt the corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash which, rather than proving PT’s involvement, is now incriminating Temer’s government and allies.

Two, the Brazilian elite’s dissatisfaction with the ‘Big State’ and the potential return to power of Lula in 2018. This has fostered an attitude of ‘the end justifies the means’ amongst some of the country’s intelligentsia.

The judiciary’s support for the status quo is also evident, especially since the death in a plane crash of Teori Zavascki, the Supreme Judge in charge of the Car Wash investigations, and the appointment of Alexandre de Moraes, Temer’s former Minister of Justice.

What can the Left do?

The 2016 municipal elections revealed how much the support for the PT and the Left in general has declined. Numbers of elected left-wing councillors and mayors decreased to levels not seen since the 1990s, whilst other left-wing parties, such as the PSOL and the PCO, are backed mainly by metropolitan students and intellectuals without ties, as yet, to established social movements or the population in general.

Although mainstream media is owned by a handful of families, there is a myriad of alternative blogs and sites in Brazil. Some are linked directly to social movements and political parties, others are independent. There are also community blogs and several ‘fact checking’ sites doing interesting work.

However, they lack resources and tend to follow the mainstream media’s agenda. That is, they are reactive and generally unable to set the debate. They also tend to concentrate on opinion rather than investigative journalism and although the alternative media has been an important player in the resistance to the coup, it is usually accessed only by those already interested in seeking alternative views.

Given this scenario, it is unlikely that the advance of the Right will be halted through institutional means. Resistance the coup, therefore, needs to come from the streets and the social movements.

In spite of the coup, organized civil society has so far tended to focus on individual demands.

Since the impeachment, we have seen students occupying schools and universities to campaign for education rights and against cuts.

The cultural sector was quite effective in re-establishing the Ministry of Culture when the Temer government wanted to get rid of it.

Similarly, feminism and LGBT rights is gaining ground in Brazil, especially among the young. The women’s movement seems to gain small victories whenever it takes action: Temer was forced to appoint a few women after the fiasco of his all-white, all-male cabinet, was exposed.

On International Women’s Day these groups were out in force and Temer announced a fund to combat violence against women and extra resources for birth and reproductive health programmes.

Besides, the middle-classes and some in the traditional media are open to feminist and pro-LGBT views.

With the impending changes to social security and labour legislation, the unions are gearing up for action. Finally, they have called for a general strike, this Friday 28 April.

The amendments to social security and labour legislation are not expected to pass through Congress as easily as the changes that led to austerity cuts and the 20-year freeze on social spending. Parties allied to Temer are becoming uncomfortable with his unpopularity and some are showing signs of rebellion.

Finally, the land and housing movements recently staged a successful occupation of São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista, the financial heart of Brazil. Temer had cut funding for the lowest band of the ‘My House, My Life’ housing programme, negatively impacting poorer people.

Led by Guilherme Boulos, national coordinator of the MTST (Homeless Workers’ Movement) and one of the most promising leaders of the younger generation, the action resulted in the re-instatement of the programme after 22 days of occupation.

Calls for Temer’s departure have been heard since the impeachment, and ‘Temer Out’ cries became almost synonymous with this year’s Carnival. Furthermore, some intellectuals and academics are extremely uncomfortable with the impeachment and resulting developments.

The government itself is in disarray, having lost nine ministers in almost as many months, as it becomes known that Temer’s inner circle is wholly implicated in the Car Wash and other corruption scandals. Meanwhile the contrast between the discriminatory treatment of PT members, compared with politicians of other parties, is becoming increasingly evident.

But as Lula’s popularity grows so does the likelihood of his imprisonment. Even if Lula is allowed to run for the presidency, unless there is a concerted effort on the Left to unite and form some sort of ‘Frente Ampla’ (Broad Front), there will be no way out of this crisis.

Whilst most people’s hopes are on Lula’s re-election in 2018, he will be unable to achieve much unless other left-wing congress members are also elected and he receives the full support, not only of the population, but of the social movements and other sectors on the Left.

Social movements have shown that when they try they are able to bring about ad hoc changes to this government’s policies. But real change can only be achieved if all different factions and groups can come together under a common banner. If this does not happen, we can expect no progress.

Mariana T Noviello also writes on the Brazilian blog O Cafezinho.

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