Impeaching Dilma

The lower house of the Brazilian Congress has voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. The middle-class anti-Dilma crowds in the streets of big cities are ecstatic. At last the PT will be brought to account for its corruption! The smaller pro-Dilma working-class crowds are despondent. The right-wing plot to reverse the results of the 2014 reelection by a rigged quasi-judicial process is succeeding.

Not so fast. “Fewer than ten” of the 511 deputies voting, by a wearisome roll-call with mini-speeches, bothered to mention the actual impeachment charges, preferring to emote about their families, the flag, and so on. (Colin Snider, h/t Erik Loomis at LGM; I watched a part of the vote on TV). They are here, in Jovair Arantes’ report to the committee that tabled them for the vote.

What the anti-corruption crowds want to see is Dilma answering for her well-paid work as a government-appointed director of Petrobras while the parastatal oil major was shovelling $2.8 billion in bribes, slush funds and kickbacks to PT and other politicians. They are not going to get this. The charges are budgetary irregularities. That’s what the trial in the Senate will be about – unless it turns into a kangaroo court, bringing in corruption allegations with no semblance of due process.

The alleged offences are mind-bogglingly technical stuff I’m not competent to assess. More’s the point, the fiddles have it seems been common practice in previous administrations and state governments, and were only recently made illegal. The Congress has other, political means of remedying the ills, like refusing to adopt a budget until the objectionable spending is legitimised or unwound. The impeachment trial will fizzle as spectacle, and once the public realizes what is going on, a conviction will not obviously be in the political interest of the senators.

The other view, represented by Glenn Greenwald’s piece here, is that it’s a nefarious right-wing plot. The one claim of his I can assess from direct observation is media bias, and I don’t see nearly enough of it to explain what is going on. The powerful Globo network is conservative, sure. But it’s the Telegraph or BSkyB more than Fox or the Daily Mail. Where does it give platforms to hard right agitators, the way Fox News does in the USA, or headline stories of immigrant welfare scroungers? The key media mechanisms of the protests have been Twitter and Facebook, which are chaotic and can’t readily be controlled. Where is the Brazilian equivalent of tweetmeister Donald Trump?

The timeline doesn’t work either. When Dilma was first elected, the Brazilian rich had some reason to be alarmed. Perhaps she would revert to her youthful radicalism and follow Chavez into left-wing populism. She is now five years in, and there is no sign of this. Her administration has SFIK taken no major new initiatives on anything. It’s been content to safeguard Lula’s legacy. The rich can sleep safe. She is deeply unpopular with all classes, from her failure to prevent the commodities-driven recession, and a conservative victory in the next election is very likely. Why take very risky steps to overthrow her now?

A rival theory. The recession and the corruption revelations have made not only the PT but the entire political class deeply unpopular. 59% of the Brazilian Congress, left and right, are under investigation for “serious charges including bribery, electoral fraud and homicide”. The key driver of the impeachment process is Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker, himself under investigation for receiving bribes from Petrobras and holding undeclared Swiss bank accounts. Attacking Dilma makes sense as a path to political survival: if Dilma falls, he will become the conservative hero of the hour. A good many of those who voted for impeachment face the same incentives. The whole thing, on this analysis, is basically just opportunism.

It won’t turn out out well. The charade risks discrediting not only the existing parties but democracy itself. So far there is no Strong Man visible in the wings, but one could emerge any time. Reforming an entire political and administrative culture without revolution of left or right is extraordinarily difficult. As merely an irregular visitor I have no suggestions as to how to do it. But this impeachment will not help.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]