WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
12 May 2016 | Commentary | News

Brazil’s Impeachment Process: What You Need to Know

Brazil, the world’s fourth largest democracy, has plunged into political turmoil in recent weeks. In the early hours of Thursday, May 12, Brazil’s Senate voted 55 to 22 to suspend President Dilma Rousseff, advancing impeachment proceedings against her for allegedly violating government budget restrictions. But while the legal basis for her removal hinges on disputed interpretations of budgetary law, the debate over her ouster has exposed some of the most alarming issues facing the country today, from political polarization and endemic corruption to lingering nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship.

The Senate vote will have ramifications for all of these concerns, and raises important questions over what the future holds for the South American country. Find out what’s next in Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil:

What is President Rousseff accused of?

Her government is accused of making up for a deficit in public accounts linked to an economic recession by diverting money from state-run banks to bolster government programs and welfare benefits. Such accounting maneuvers are illegal under law, and though previous administrations have used them before, they accelerated under her presidency.

However, Rousseff’s suspension is also a reaction to widespread public discontent with the state of the economy, which has been reeling from the end of a China-driven commodity boom. The country is undergoing its worst recession in two decades, with the economy shrinking by 3.8 percent in 2015. The annual inflation rate, meanwhile, has risen to its highest point in 13 years. The public is also largely dissatisfied with the government’s administration of the health, education, and public transport systems, as massive demonstrations in recent years have shown. The political opponents of Rouseff and her Workers’ Party have managed to capitalize on this discontent.

Has she been officially impeached?

Technically not. Under Brazilian law, a president is “impeached” only when they have been convicted after a Senate trial. However, the May 12 vote effectively suspends her from office for 180 days while an impeachment trial is held in the Senate.

Who is taking Rousseff’s place during her suspension?

Current vice president and outspoken Rousseff critic Michel Temer has assumed the interim presidency. If two-thirds of the Senate finds her guilty, Temer would then serve out the remainder of her term, which ends in 2018.

However, many have raised concerns about a Temer presidency. Indeed, polls show that nearly as many Brazilians support impeaching Temer as support impeaching Rousseff herself (61 percent for her, 58 percent for him).

The former lawmaker has also been convicted of violating campaign finance law, and in April a Brazilian Supreme Court justice ordered the lower house to analyze whether to bring impeachment proceedings against him on the same charges that Rousseff faces. What’s more, testimony has linked him to a massive graft scandal involving the state oil agency Petrobras.

Beyond these allegations, Temer’s nascent administration has also come under criticism for his cabinet picks, which he announced upon assuming office. Unless he alters his selections, he is on track to lead the first Brazilian administration since 1979—when the country was still under military rule—not to feature a single woman in its cabinet nominations.

How does the impeachment process fit with the major corruption scandals that have emerged in recent months?

One of the ironies of the impeachment process is that while Rousseff herself is not implicated in any charges of personal enrichment, the same cannot be said of her opponents. Eduardo Cunha, the lower house politician who led the movement to impeach Rousseff, was ordered to step down on May 5 amid charges that he received up to $40 million in bribes.

He is not the only Rousseff critic who has come under scrutiny. Of the 513 members of Brazil’s lower house, 303 either face charges or are currently under investigation for serious crimes. This includes 37 of the 65 members on special commission that first spearheaded the impeachment effort.  The same can be said of the majority of lawmakers in the Senate, in which 49 of 81 members are facing allegations of criminal conduct.

Will Rousseff’s ouster have wider implications?

While legal experts disagree on the technical grounds for her impeachment, there is no doubt that it has underscored deep political divisions inside the country. Her supporters have characterized her ouster as an undemocratic coup, while some of her most extreme detractors have used alarming rhetoric to invoke the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In the April 17 lower house vote that moved her impeachment to the Senate, one lawmaker even dedicated his vote to the former head of the dictatorship-era military intelligence agency, named by the 2014 National Truth Commission as having “direct authority” over torture, murders, and other acts of repression against dissidents.

Rousseff’s ouster may have international repercussions as well. Like the 2012 impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, Rousseff’s suspension could result in blowback from the country’s South American neighbors. In the past, she has stated a willingness to appeal to the Mercosur trading bloc in her defense, which could invoke rules on democratic governance that could suspend certain trading benefits. Meanwhile, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has also expressed concern over the impeachment proceedings, and has called on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to evaluate “legal uncertainties” in the case.