Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Brazil’s Rousseff Impeached and Removed from Office: A Case of Partisan Politics?

Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office at the end of August, 2016. The state’s senate voted 61-20 to convict her on charges that she used illegal bookkeeping maneuvers to hid a growing budget deficit.[1] Her defense that she did not enrich herself through public office—that she did not steal public money for her own account—can be regarded as an attempt to deflect the legislators from the existing charges.[2] Only 56 legislators were necessary for a two-thirds majority. Given the problems of hyperinflation and fiscal mismanagement, including a growing public debt, her offenses were “deemed an impeachable crime.”[3] Although Brazil was hardly the only country where the chief executive has sought under political pressure to make a budget deficit look smaller than it actually was, enforcing deterring consequences even just in this case is laudable—while other, partisan motives, detracted from the vote’s legitimacy.

In a representative democracy, the popular sovereign—the People—have a right and interest in getting accurate deficit figures from their government. Put another way, accounting gimmicks have no place in a republic. Rousseff’s impeachment and removal from office would be inappropriate, however, to the extent that the legislators were motivated by partisanship or even displeasure as to the government’s economic performance. The point of having terms of office is to insulate office holders so they can enact painful measures that are nonetheless needed, such as efforts to reduce the debt. Not even something less than success with deficits warrants removal of office, for elections serve that purpose without compromising the institution of a term of office.

In Brazil, Rousseff’s administration “had come under pressure over a brutal recession.”[4] According to the Wall Street Journal, many people believed that “Rousseff’s fall had less to do with the official charges than her mishandling of South America’s largest economy, which moved from 7.6% GDO growth in 2010, when she was first elected, to the worst downturn since the Great Depression in her second term.”[5]  The economy contracted by 3.8% in 2015 and was expected to shrink another 3.2% in 2016.[6] Pressure to remove her out of attribution of the economic decline to her policies should not have been a factor in the impeachment vote because bad policies, or even becoming unpopular, is not criminal in nature. Sen. Cristovam Buarque of the Popular Socialist Party was wrong, therefore, when he declared, “Impeachment isn’t only about a crime. There is also a government without support in [the legislature] and without a path for the economy.”[7] At the very least, his vote to impeach the president was misguided and thus stained.

Being implicated in the “massive corruption scandal at the state oil company,” however, could justify impeachment.[8] Rousseff was indeed damaged by the scandal, as she had headed Petrobra’s board of directors when much of the illegal activity occurred. Petrobras wrote off nearly $30 billion in 2014 and 2015—much of it due to bribes and inflated contracts.[9] Yet did she know of these at the time? A subsequent investigation found no evidence that she personally benefitted from the big-rigging and bribery scandal in which politicians and contractors colluded to loot billions from the giant oil company.[10] Of course, this does not mean that she did not go along with the schemes. Given the magnitude of money involved, it is hard to believe that the chair of the board would be oblivious and thus guilt-free.

Regardless of the question of her tacit approval of the corruption, that the scandal “splintered her political base and devastated her popular support” should not have fed into the vote against her.[11] That such a political loss during a term of office would make it easier for legislators to vote against her is something they should resist, for otherwise the vote becomes merely a partisan opportunity to change the parties in power.

Her removal did indeed end 13 years in which her Workers’ Party was in power. Such a political feat as removing such a longstanding party means a partisan motive could indeed have contributed to the 61-20 result. Before the vote, her “political enemies hailed her looming removal “as a rebuke to the leftist tide that swept across many South American countries in the early 2000s.”[12] The use of an impeachment vote to make such a rebuke is not appropriate because the impeachment device is supposed to deal with criminal activity such as deliberately misstating budget-deficit numbers. That Sen. Ronaldo Caiado of the Democrats Party said the “ouster was a repudiation [of] the Workers’ Party” suggests that the impeachment mechanism was used inappropriately. In short, Caiado was confusing an election with an impeachment.

[1] Paulo Trevisani and Reed Johnson, “Brazilian President Rousseff Ousted,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.