President Rousseff's Likely Impeachment Will Push Brazil to the Right

With Rousseff almost certain to lose the upcoming impeachment vote in the senate on May 11, her controversial vice president, Michel Temer, is preparing to take over the job and promising austerity measures when he does.
May 3, 2016, 7:03pm
Photo by Fernando Bizarre Jr/EPA

Ten days ahead of a senate vote expected to seal the end of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff's mandate, attention is turning to her controversial vice president as he prepares to move the country rightward.

Michel Temer is set to replace Rousseff if the pro-impeachment lobby obtains the simple majority it needs, in the senate on May 11, to push her into a mandatory 180-day leave.

The rise of the Temer adds additional pain to the apparently imminent end of the 13-year-old era of governments headed by the Workers' Party, the PT.

The route leading to the demise of the PT differs radically from the elections that ended 12 years of left-wing Kirchnerismo in Argentina last December, and put right winger Mauricio Macri in the presidency. The result, however, may end up being very similar.

The 75-year-old Temer is a member of the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, which has propped up PT governments for a number of years. The party's decision to leave the governing coalition helped ensure that Rousseff lost the first key impeachment vote in the lower house of congress last month.

Temer, a constitutional lawyer married to a young beauty queen who has not previously tended to look for the spotlight himself, has already begun to assemble a new cabinet. He has also made it clear he is planning to remove some protections for workers, as well as limit social programs and pension funds. He is also reportedly seeking to overhaul the tax system.

What's more, he probably has sufficient support to pass the reforms that the private sector desperately wants, and fiscal conservatives say are necessary in order to reduce the country's ballooning deficit.

"They are going to have to do something quick and dirty in terms of social security reform to reduce the deficit, and that is going to be painful," said political science professor David Fleischer. "It's the same with a family or a business. When the revenue falls you have to cut your expenditures."

Related: The Impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff Now Seems All but Inevitable

Beyond economics, there is much speculation in Brazil that some legislators have given their support to impeachment in exchange for protection from the massive Lava Jato, or Car Wash, anti-corruption probe centered on kickbacks involving the state-run oil company Petrobras.

So far the Lava Jato probe has led to 318 of the 594 members of the lower house being investigated for serious crimes or even facing charges. The same is true of 49 of the 81 senate members.

Fleischer said he expects the investigations to slow, although Temer's team has promised this will not happen.

Rousseff's impeachment — rooted in allegations that she fiddled the national accounts to hide the size of the deficit after her reelection in 2014 — has nothing to do with Lava Jato, though many mistakenly assume it does and she was head of Petrobras.

Corruption allegations, however, directly affect some of the most prominent promoters of her demise.

Rousseff herself has taken particular aim at the unpopular president of the lower chamber, Eduardo Cunha, who has spearheaded the impeachment proceedings against her.

Cunha is from the same party as her vice president. Assuming Temer becomes president on or soon after May 11, Cunha would be his natural second in command.

"Everyone knows that the president of the Chamber of Deputies has foreign bank accounts and has been investigated by the Attorney General of the Republic," Rousseff said last week. "I never received any bribes, I don't have foreign bank accounts, and I have not been accused of corruption."

Cunha faces multiple allegations of corruption, money laundering, and hiding the existence of Swiss bank accounts. Last December, Brazil's attorney general, Rodrigo Janot, declared that his removal from the chamber was "necessary and imperative" in light of the accusations against him, and called on the supreme court to do it.

Though this seems unlikely, rumors have started to spread that Cunha, having secured the impeachment vote against Rousseff, could step down as president in the lower chamber in an attempt to step out of the spotlight and retain what dwindling support he enjoys.

Related: Scuffles Break Out in Brazil's Congress as Rousseff Impeachment Vote Begins

Meanwhile, the leading newspaper O Globo claimed on Monday that it had obtained information from the vice president's office that Rousseff is set to resign as president this Friday. According to the report, she would also request the resignation of Temer and call for general elections to be held in October.

Though Rousseff has voiced support for general elections in the days following the impeachment vote in the lower house, the report has puzzled analysts as she has stood firm against numerous calls for her to step down in past months. She has repeatedly described the impeachment process as "a coup" and even did so last month at the United Nations in New York.

Matthew Taylor, a senior fellow on Latin America at the Council for Foreign Relations said that it could be a resort aimed at trying to shake things up a little before she is pushed out anyway by the senate vote.

"Resignation would certainly destabilize the agreements that Temer has built up, and the threat of resignation that limits Temer's strength may be strategic in the short term," he said. "But I do think it would be a sort of last gasp, last straw effort."

In order for the gesture to translate into early general elections, congress would have to pass a constitutional amendment. An amendment to do this is already languishing in the senate, with the support of the Workers' Party and the former presidential candidate Marina Silva. Silva is currently at the head of the pack for the next elections due to take place in 2018.

Related: Dilma Rousseff Is Close to Being Impeached, but Not All Brazilians Hate Her

Leonardo Barreto, an analyst and professor of political science at the University of Brasilia, said that the proposal was unlikely to be approved because "deputies and senators are not going to want to have new elections now."

The only other route for opening the way for new elections would be an order from the country's top electoral court that is currently investigating allegations of dubious campaign spending by Rousseff and Temer in 2014. The ruling would also have to come before the end of the year that marks the halfway point of the existing mandate.

With that possibility also looking remote, it seems almost inevitable now that Brazil is about to join the region's general move to the right — though this time without elections being involved in the shift.

Related: Meet Brazil's Donald Trump: He's Deliberately Outrageous and He Wants to Be President

Follow Eva Hershaw and Leandro Melito on Twitter: @beets4eva and @leandromelito