Brazil – Corruption Scandals, Protests and Calls for Impeachment

On Sunday, Brazil witnessed widespread public demonstrations across the country in protest against government corruption involving the Brazilian state energy behemoth, Petrobras. This follows an even larger demonstration in March when it was estimated that more than 1.5 million people took to the streets in anger at the government. Worryingly for President Dilma Rousseff in particular, protestors marched in support of her impeachment.

This colossal corruption scandal centers on the state energy giant Petrobras, which was allegedly used in an elaborate kick-back scheme, where money from inflated contracts was channeled back to the governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in addition to more straightforward allegations of bribery where energy officials received large cash payments in return for contracts. Thirty-five people, including top executives from Petrobras, have already been charged, and earlier this month, the Supreme Court approved the investigation of a further 54.

Currently, despite the efforts of the opposition, Dilma has remained above the scandal. She denies any knowledge of the kickback scheme, just as Lula did during the Mensalão scandal and she has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the attorney general. However, opposition groups claim that much of this bribery occurred while she was Minister of Energy (2003-2005) and therefore, must have been aware of the bribery scheme given its size and extent. For some members of the opposition (and a majority of the public), this justifies the initiation of impeachment proceedings.

Is this really likely to happen? Since the return to democracy, large sustained street protests, motivated by allegations of corruption, have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Consider the early resignations of Raúl Alfonsín and Eduardo Duhalde in Argentina in the face of popular mobilization. Or the collapse of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency in Bolivia amidst persistent unrest and clashes between the police and protesters. Or the removal of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador. Or Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela. Or even Fernando Collor de Mello, the only Brazilian president since the return to democracy to have been impeached (and who is now under investigation again as part of this corruption scandal).

Dilma’s popularity is at an all time-low. In March, a public opinion poll indicated an approval rating of just 13 per cent for the beleaguered president. Results from a public opinion survey from only two days ago suggest that 63 per cent of Brazilians believe that impeachment proceedings against President Rousseff should begin. It is quite possible that part of this dissatisfaction reflects unhappiness with the state of the domestic economy. Inflation and unemployment are rising and growth in 2014 was a paltry 0.1 per cent. This year the real has fallen 14 per cent against the dollar, a precipitous decline that has only been accelerated by the recent political turbulence.

However, as long as Dilma can maintain her coalition in the house, her impeachment, or even her resignation, remains unlikely. An excellent literature has now provided solid empirical evidence that presidential impeachment in Latin America lies at the intersection between popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive).[1] The combination of a corruption scandal and mass protests can, and indeed has, forced presidents to pre-emptively resign, or has forced the house to begin impeachment proceedings. Nonetheless, even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ have proven very difficult to remove from office. For the moment, providing the economy does not deteriorate dramatically, Dilma should be OK.

One thing is for sure however. The president’s honeymoon period is over.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

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