Does Temer’s survival weaken the Brazilian coup?

Yesterday, as expected on the basis of recent developments, unelected Brazilian president Michel Temer survived. 263 deputies in the lower house of congress voted in a plenary session against suspending him from office pending investigation of the charges brought against him by Attorney General Rodrigo Janot, comfortably more than the minimum required to keep Temer and his ministers in power and prevent the case against him from being considered by the Supreme Court. More precisely, they approved a recommendation of the Constitution and Justice Commission that the case should not proceed, which Temer had secured through a previous parliamentary manoeuvre that overturned an original recommendation from the rapporteur of the process that Temer should be submitted to judgement for the common crime of passive corruption. In the run-up to the vote, Temer spent over three billion reais from the straightened public coffers buying support from deputies, and held innumerable meetings with groups of deputies and parliamentary interest groups to negotiate their loyalty. He was assisted in this task by Aécio Neves, suspended leader of the PSDB, the Temer regime’s main ally in the coup. Neves had been returned to the Senate by decision of a Supreme Court judge, despite the grave corruption charges that Janot had brought against him, accompanied by repeatedly rejected demands for his imprisonment pending trial in order to prevent him from obstructing justice. This left him free to drum up support for Temer in their mutual interest of securing impunity, although despite Neves’s efforts, the group of deputies from the PSDB, which still holds key ministries in the Temer administration, split down the middle on the vote.

Janot is expected to bring further charges against Temer, but since they are likely to suffer the same fate in this congress, the prospects of Temer’s surviving in office until his term as replacement president ends in 2018 now seem quite good. This is despite the fact that polls show that over 80% of the electorate wanted Temer to be suspended from office and tried, and a majority of Brazilians favoured new direct elections as a solution to the deepening crisis that has followed the ouster of Dilma Rousseff. The opposition tried to challenge  the manner in which yesterday’s proceedings were conducted by Rodrigo Maia, the politician from the right-wing Democrats who succeeded the imprisoned Eduardo Cunha as president of the lower chamber of the Congress, and also faces investigation for corruption. Parliamentary decorum disintegrated somewhat as frustrations mounted, but there was no repetition of the absurd pantomime that accompanied the debate on Rousseff’s impeachment. Those in favour of keeping Temer in office argued that it was essential for maintaining economic stability and fostering a return to growth. Much of what was said about Temer’s economic achievements hardly squares with the facts, and efforts to justify his bribes as new public spending that benefitted lower class Brazilians and public services invite ridicule. What is certain is that the president’s self-preservation strategy has involved further concessions to specific lobbies, particularly agribusiness. These new concessions twist the screw of the socially regressive agenda of the coup, and also wrote off, by decree, the interest payments due on the huge unpaid debts of big landowners to the tax and social security systems.

The Globo media empire, orchestrator of coups, was not in favour of Temer’s continuity in power as the political front man of the coup, but of his substitution as president by indirect election. Rodrigo Maia would have been next in line constitutionally, but this was not the only option had Temer actually been found guilty. There may be more turbulence to come, but for the moment, the priority for the organisers of the coup is to push forward with the so-called pension reform with Temer still occupying the presidency and continuing his efforts to win votes in the Congress by the same means he has deployed to save his own skin. What we can be fairly certain about is that even if Brazil does return to some modest pattern of economic growth, it will be of the kind already familiar from other countries with similar economic policies. Macro-economic indicators of improvement will not signal real benefits for the mass of the working population but bring deepening polarisation of income distribution and precarianisation of employment, and any return to growth will be accompanied by a transfer of control over national resources to foreign capital. Since much of this abandonment of national resource sovereignty relates to extractive industries and agribusiness, it will have additional negative local social and environmental effects. A significant amount of damage has already been done during Temer’s fifteen months in power. It is no exaggeration to say that the forces behind the coup are seeking to return a deindustrialised Brazil to the position that it occupied in the world economy before the populism of Gétulio Vargas ushered in an economic nationalist project.

Brazilians are no longer expressing their discontents on the streets, and the prospect of not being re-elected does not seem to be worrying many of Temer’s congressional supporters. Judge Sergio Mora continues to persecute ex-president Lula, and many of Lula’s supporters are convinced that his candidacy for election in 2018 will eventually be blocked. Yesterday’s parliamentary vote for impunity might be considered further proof that the present Congress is structurally unfit for purpose, but public disillusion with political and judicial institutions is likely to help the coup agenda and might even favour the political right in the longer-term by promoting  abstentionism and allowing figures not touched by past corruption scandals to emerge as alternatives, exploiting public anger and frustration with the established political class and mounting criminality, violence and insecurity.

But it is important to start thinking about the extent to which Brazil’s problems are symptoms of something more general. Liberal newspapers in the UK seem more interested in the Venezuelan crisis than the Brazilian one at the moment. Yet despite the increasingly desperate day-to-day circumstances that Venezuelan citizens face, (elected) Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro clearly still commands more support in his country than Michel Temer, whose approval rating has now slumped to 5%. The recent history of Venezuela simply underscores the need to ask deeper questions about the nature of the political forces that are fighting to draw a line under the “Pink Tide” in Latin America, and the transnational networks of corporate interests and private foundations that support them. It is not simply US government that is an actor in these scenarios and it is difficult to paint the right and centre-right in these conflicts as uncompromising defenders of democracy and the rule of law.  Yesterday’s parliamentary antics in Brazil were not completely superficial, since they will have significant material effects and the outcome was purchased at considerable cost, both in terms of the immediate deficit in the public finances and new concessions to private capitalist interests. But there is a deeper and broader struggle going on in Latin America that is about economic domination, and it is no holds barred with regard to the methods being used to secure the goals of capitalist interests, including foreign capitalist interests. It is reasonable to criticise Venezuelan chavismo and Brazilian petismo (or Lulismo) for not resolving key structural contradictions inherited from the past, for not transcending economic dependence on global commodity markets, and for not eliminating corruption. But it is less reasonable not to explore what these “socially progressive” governments were up against and the forces behind the intensified offensive against them of the last few years.

Problems such as crime and violence would be a challenge for any government, particularly given their transnational dimensions, which mirror those of corporate power in the “legal” but not necessarily more ethical economy, but they would be easier to resolve if the nature of government itself was not part of the problem, irrespective of ideological orientation. Michel Temer was quick to answer Joesley Batista’s plea-bargain testimony by denouncing the JBS CEO as a crook, but offered no plausible defence of his clandestine meeting with the businessman, and the Lula government’s support for the development of this and other business empires at the centre of the current corruption scandals is one of the sticks with which his enemies in congress were able to beat the PT group in congress yesterday. Yet this is simply the discursive political surface of much deeper problems, and problems which should also lead us beyond the nexus between politics and business that is as much a problem for US democracy as it is for Brazilian democracy. What does the kind of capitalist restructuring that the coup seeks to impose on Brazil offer Brazilians and is there really “no alternative”, as the pro-Temer deputies insisted yesterday? And beyond that, is the capitalist organisation of economic life and its system of social property relations really an end of history to which we should all now resign ourselves?

Although it might help as an orientating premise for long-term strategic thinking, it is not necessary to answer the second of these question to win an election. But in Brazil even winning an election with an immediately appealing, damage reduction, answer to the first question could prove a pyrrhic victory without a fundamental rethinking of past mistakes and a very firm plan for radical institutional reform. As things stand, the game may be won by the golpistas through tactical improvisations within the existing political and institutional field, in which a politically calculative judiciary and mainstream media are central, and the right seem to be colonising the alternative communicative field of social media networks quite effectively. With current levels of public disillusion in a Brazilian society that is heavily individualised and polarised between socially liberal and illiberal positions, circumstances do not seem propitious for a re-energisation of grassroots politics. If the opposition are capable of exploiting it properly with a more radical reforming agenda, the political survival of the extremely unpopular Temer may still offer a window of opportunity, especially since it provided a stark reminder that the majority in congress is not in favour of pursuing anti-corruption investigations since this would amount to the turkeys voting for Christmas. But although it was not Globo’s preferred solution, having a weakened Temer governing Brazil may not be bad news for global money. The Temer government will have less force than ever in international forums and on the diplomatic stage, but if an ever more illegitimate president and his cronies can keep the coup on track domestically, making full use of their powers to govern by decree with a compliant congress whilst maintaining a submissive posture with respect to the interests of foreign capital, that will be positive enough for the time being for those external actors with an interest in seeing the coup reduce what recently seemed like an emerging independent power on the world stage to the status of a colony once again.