Pages

Monday, August 29, 2016

Angry Impeachment Scenes Spur Calls For Changes To Brasil's Political System

Angry impeachment scenes spur calls for changes to Brazil’s political system

Explosive Rousseff trial raises questions about political system
Senators Lindbergh Farias (right) and Gleisi Hoffmann argue with Senate President Renan Calheiros (left, facing away) during the second day of the senate impeachment trial on Friday © AFP
As Brazil prepares to conclude the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff as early as this Tuesday, the trauma of the grinding nine-month process is leading to the bigger question — is the political system of Latin America’s biggest country broken? 
The final phase of the trial in congress of the left-wing president on charges of fiddling the budget, which started last Thursday, has been characterised by angry exchanges between senators from opposing sides so heated that at times the house has had to go into recess to let them cool down.
But, while dramatic, the impeachment process has left one of the world's largest emerging economies without a strong helmsman for nearly a year at a time when it is suffering its deepest recession on record. 
Some observers point to the example of the UK, whose parliamentary system enabled David Cameron to be rapidly substituted as prime minister by his home secretary Theresa May after he lost the Brexit vote on the UK leaving the European Union. Brazil’s rigid presidential system makes it extremely difficult to remove a serving president, no matter how under-performing. 
“I am fanatically parliamentarian” said Brazil’s foreign minister José Serra, in a recent interview with the FT. “Because in parliamentarianism, changing the government is a solution, while in presidentialism, it is a trauma.” 
The senate is due to conclude the final stage of the impeachment — the judgment phase — with a vote that is expected on Tuesday. Ms Rousseff is scheduled to appear in the senate to defend herself on Monday. 
If two-thirds, or 54 or more, of the 81 senators support the process, Ms Rousseff will be replaced by her former deputy, interim president Michel Temer. He would hold office until the next elections in 2018. 
Ms Rousseff is the second Brazilian leader to face an impeachment process since the country returned to democracy from military dictatorship only 28 years ago.
Suspended president Dilma Rousseff at a rally in Brasilia last week © AFP
Nominated by her popular predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the left-wing Workers’ Party, or PT, Ms Rousseff enjoyed soaring approval ratings in her first term between 2011 and 2014. But these fell to a record low on a huge corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-run oil company, and the recession. 
The PT has attacked the impeachment as a parliamentary coup. Yet, if Brazil had been a parliamentary democracy, Ms Rousseff would almost certainly have been removed in a simple vote of no-confidence months ago, raising questions over whether a parliamentary system would have served the country better, analysts said. 
“This debate always comes back whenever we have a political crisis,” said Carlos Pereira, an analyst at FGV/Ebape, an academic institution in Rio de Janeiro. 
The debate is fuelled by the superficial resemblance of Brazil’s presidential system to a parliamentary one. Known as coalition presidentialism, Brazilian leaders have to muster a majority among an estimated 25 parties in congress if they are to get their programmes through. 
Loyalty is bought through cabinet appointments, budget allocations and sometimes bribes, analysts say. Federal police indicted Mr Lula da Silva last week for allegedly receiving favours from Petrobras contractors, some of whom have been convicted of paying bribes to members of Mr Lula da Silva’s former coalition. He has denied any wrongdoing. 
Parliamentarism would not help solve such problems, analysts say. Instead, the absence of a president with a fixed tenure could make things more unstable. 
Senator Aecio Neves (left) speaks with Ricardo Lewandowski, president of the Supreme Court, during the final session of debate and voting in the impeachment trial © Reuters
“Our political culture is not prepared for parliamentarism,” said Rodrigo Augusto Prando, a political scientist at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo.
FGV’s Mr Pereira said a parliamentary system had already been tried unsuccessfully in Brazil, including in the early 1960s, when several governments collapsed in quick succession before the military took power. Brazilians also voted overwhelmingly for a presidential system in a plebiscite in 1993.
Instead of viewing the impeachment as a trauma, it should be seen as “a celebration of democracy”, Mr Pereira said. Brazil’s relatively young institutions were functioning, with the impeachment proceeding according to the constitution, he added. 
“Changing the rules of the game now would create a mess and more uncertainty,” Mr Pereira said. 
But most observers agree that refinements are needed, such as reducing the number of parties, to make the system more manageable. Presidents in the US, for example, only have to deal with two major parties.
No one knows these debates better than Mr Temer, three times former speaker of the lower house of congress. He is reported to be rehearsing a video of his acceptance speech if and when Ms Rousseff is impeached this week. 
But he had better watch his back. Leading politicians in his own centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, including the head of the senate Renan Calheiros, are pushing for a change to parliamentarianism. If they have their way, Mr Temer could soon be fighting to keep his new job.