Why is Brazil once again mired in political chaos?
Less than a year ago, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and forced out of office in a swirl of claims about financial impropriety. Now her successor, Michel Temer, finds his presidency in peril as well.
Tapes that recently surfaced appear to capture Mr. Temer, who was already under investigation for corruption, approving of bribes paid to a lawmaker who has been jailed for corruption. Many now believe he will also face impeachment.
On Wednesday, Mr. Temer deployed the military in the streets of the capital, Brasília, after thousands of protesters clashed with the police. Although the defense minister said the troops had been sent merely to “restore order,” many saw the move as a sign of profound insecurity from an already weak government.
Political science suggests this is an example of how the “islands of honesty” in corrupt systems — like independent prosecutors and courts with the willingness and authority to enforce the rule of law — can clash with networks of entrenched corruption, both provoking and spoiling efforts by political elites to protect themselves.
And as the honest forces and the corrupt ones struggle against each other, their clashes can have unpredictable effects on the political system.
Impeachment, but With a Wink
“We have to have a pact,” Romero Jucá, an influential legislator, was recorded saying in March 2016, to Sergio Machado, a former executive at a subsidiary of the Petrobras oil company, as the two men discussed the need to replace Ms. Rousseff to protect themselves and others from corruption charges.
It was an apt choice of words. In political science speak, a “pacted transition” is one in which members of the elite, often within the government or its circle of allies, join forces with the opposition to replace a president or regime, hoping to protect their own interests. The term is generally used to explain how an authoritarian regime transitions to democracy, but it also offers a useful explanation of how impeachments work within democratic systems.
In Brazil, opposition politicians and other elites, including Mr. Machado and Mr. Jucá, cooperated to impeach Ms. Rousseff in August.
Many analysts believe that the charges against her — violating budgetary laws by borrowing from a state-owned bank to conceal a deficit — were minor.
“Multiple games were being played with the impeachment of Dilma,” said Ken Roberts, a political scientist at Cornell University who studies Latin America. “In any impeachment, there are political and partisan interests. It’s never strictly a legal matter.”
Some politicians saw the impeachment as an opportunity to force Ms. Rousseff’s Workers Party out of power, he said. But others appear to have believed that a new government would shut down a corruption investigation that had implicated much of Brazil’s political and economic elite, and that Ms. Rousseff had refused to block.
Corruption depends on an “equilibrium,” the political economist Miriam Golden and the economist Ray Fisman have written. People pay or accept bribes because they think everyone else is doing it. As a consequence, graft can quickly spread through a system like a metastasizing cancer, taking hold across political institutions.
But when prosecutors or judges gain enough independence to investigate and prosecute corruption, widespread corruption suddenly becomes widespread vulnerability, creating an incentive for politicians to take drastic action to protect themselves.
In Brazil, some politicians seem to have seen Ms. Rousseff’s ouster as such a drastic but necessary step. In their recorded conversation, Mr. Machado said to Mr. Jucá that he wanted to see “the departure of Dilma,” saying that Mr. Temer “would form a government of national unity, make a major agreement, protect Lula and protect everyone.”
“This country would return to being calm,” he added.
How Spoilers Can Undermine a Pact
But so-called pacted transitions can be vulnerable. If powerful institutions or constituencies do not buy into the terms of the pact, they can act as spoilers, leaving the new government weak.
The politicians who pushed for Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment appear to have wrongly assumed that the powerful prosecutor’s office and judiciary would fall in line, and that a Temer government would be able to shut down or limit the corruption investigation.
That has not happened. The corruption prosecutions have continued under Mr. Temer’s presidency, and have focused on some of the most powerful people in the country.
Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the lower house of Congress and a key architect of Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment, was convicted of corruption and money-laundering charges in March and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is facing multiple criminal charges.
The Brazilian public may have also been an important spoiler. The new government was unpopular from the beginning, said Amy Erica Smith, a professor at Iowa State University who studies Brazil. “Temer came in, and from Day 1 he was underwater in terms of popularity.”
Mass support is crucial to a successful pacted transition, said Tom Pepinsky, a professor at Cornell who studies authoritarianism and regime change. In countries where such transitions have been successful, public support has given the new government the authority to govern, which in turn helps institutions grow stronger and more stable.
But if the public opposes the transition, Mr. Pepinsky said, the government’s power and authority are undermined.
How Strong Institutions Can Undermine Stability
The outcry against Mr. Temer suggests that the public will not tolerate political corruption, and that the legal system is strong enough to ferret out misconduct.
But experts worry that each round of allegations, prosecutions and impeachment ultimately weakens the political system and diminishes public trust. That makes it more difficult for the country’s political institutions to regain credibility and maintain stability.
In other countries, similar situations have proved to be an opportunity for populist leaders who promise to throw the whole flawed system out and start over.
Experts following Brazil’s crisis returned repeatedly to the same example — Italy’s “clean hands” investigation in the 1990s. There, a series of prosecutions rooted out networks of corruption, cleaning up the political system.
“But in the process of doing that, the party system that was the anchor of the democratic regime in the postwar period basically crumbled,” Mr. Roberts said. “What you end up with is a political vacuum that gets filled by a populist outsider in Berlusconi.”
And in Venezuela, a series of corruption scandals undermined public confidence in the government, opening up space for Hugo Chávez’s populism. Over time, Mr. Chávez undermined government institutions and concentrated his own power, putting the country on a path to authoritarianism and the economic crisis it faces today.
Brazil may be at risk of a similar outcome. “I really worry that in cleaning it up, the whole system is going to crumble,” Mr. Roberts said. “I really fear what a Brazilian Berlusconi is going to look like.”
Ms. Smith concurred, saying: “It’s a house of cards. If enough of the cards are weak, it’s impossible to prop up.”