Last night Brazilian TV provided live broadcasts of the spectacle of the vote in the chamber of deputies that produced more than the necessary two thirds majority for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Spectacle it certainly was, but not an edifying one. It was not simply that the ritual had been organised by the house leader, Eduardo Cunha, already charged with grave acts of corruption and tax evasion, although the deal-making behind this constitutional coup may have secured him impunity. The almost comic, but definitely black comic, panorama of Brazil’s political party system that was presented as deputies stepped up to the microphone to make short declarations to justify their votes provided a powerful demonstration of why failure to push for political reform has proved one of greatest failings of the PT’s years in power. This is, however, probably easier for an academic to say than it was for a practicing politician like “Lula” da Silva to do. To the last, the former president participated in a game of horse-trading against Michel Temer and Eduardo Cunha which provided all too clear a picture of how politics is actually done in Brazil, but this time he lost.
Some figures on the left argue that the PT brought this fate upon itself by pandering to the dictates of capitalists and landowners rather than favouring the interests of popular social movements such as the Movement of Landless Workers and the Movement of the Homeless. Indigenous Brazilians also have little reason to love Dilma. At the eleventh hour, the President did reach out, with promises of more land reform. It is perhaps significant that this did not prove too little, too late. The MST and MTST did join the marches in defence of democracy and against the impeachment, because they know only too well that what will follow the PT will be very much worse for them. But they do not represent enough Brazilians to provide an effective counter-weight to the forces that lie behind this coup.
The Senate has yet to vote and there is still a lot to play for. Temer and Cunha are not popular. Temer’s party, the PMDB, is a legacy of the military dictatorship which long since lost its members who possessed ideological commitments. Today it is simply an electoral machine that provides access to the (very substantial) spoils of elected office. Yet regime change is likely to lead to very considerable social regression, in a whole variety of areas. A lot of Brazilians will continue to resist that and levels of political polarisation are increasingly high. The real battle is only beginning. Spectacles of the triumphant impunity of the corrupt who represent the privileged and powerful can only magnify growing doubts about institutions, including judicial institutions, that have to date functioned in an apparently politically biased way. The legal basis for Dilma’s impeachment was thin. But if it is deemed adequate, Temer as vice-president should be equally guilty of the alleged crimes of responsibility. Cunha should be removed from office until he has successfully answered the charges against him, if he can. Corruption on the part of PSDB poliiticians., including Aécio Neves, the candidate Dilma defeated in 2014, should be investigated with the same vigour as wrongdoing by members of the PT. If none of this happens, systemic legitimacy will decay at an accelerating rate.
But the next question may be whether those behind this coup really care, or rather, need to care. The answer may depend on how those Brazilians who have not taken to the streets yet react to last night’s farcical but disturbing spectacle.