Brazil's Massive Corruption Scandal Is Polarizing The Country

Millions of Brazilians are publicly protesting for the president's impeachment.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff suffered another blow on Tuesday, when the powerful Brazilian Democratic Movement Party quit the government's ruling coalition.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff suffered another blow on Tuesday, when the powerful Brazilian Democratic Movement Party quit the government's ruling coalition.
EVARISTO SA/Getty Images

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with political scientist Mauricio Santoro, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, on the political crisis unfolding in brazil.

An escalating corruption scandal is engulfing Brazil's government. It's caused political deadlock and brought millions of people out in pro- and anti-government protests. On Tuesday, President Dilma Rousseff suffered a blow when the powerful Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or the PMDB, quit the government's ruling coalition.

Rousseff now faces a growing threat of impeachment on charges related to breaking budget laws, amid declining political and popular support. In a sign of the corruption problems that plague Brazil's politics, many of the officials accusing Rousseff of malfeasance are also the subject of graft allegations.

The scandals have occurred as the South American country faces a myriad social and economic crises that include its worst recession in decades. While polls show that discontent with Rousseff is high, Brazil's protests are part of a complex political landscape in which government supporters and opponents are increasingly polarized.

The WorldPost spoke with Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, on the effects of the scandal on Brazilian society and what the future may hold for its politics.

This March 13 protest in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, formed part of a series of nationwide protests calling for Rousseff's impeachment, but she also has plenty of supporters.
This March 13 protest in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, formed part of a series of nationwide protests calling for Rousseff's impeachment, but she also has plenty of supporters.
Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

After Wednesday's developments, how likely is it that Rousseff will face impeachment?

The biggest political party in Brazil left the government. That makes impeachment much bigger probability. I would say that today, the possibility that Dilma will be impeached is something around 70 percent.

She's losing the votes that she needs and she doesn't have the support of the majority of the population. She will have a very difficult time in the next weeks in Congress.

Some reports indicate that Brazilian people are completely opposed to Rousseff, but how much support has she actually lost from voters?

Three years ago, Dilma was a very popular president. She had the support of around 75 percent of the population. But then everything began to change very quickly. The economy went from a good moment to a very bad one, and now we are in the middle of the worst recession in 25 years. Lots of corruption scandals started to appear. The president wasn't able to respond to all these big demonstrations and to all these big demands that several social groups in Brazil were presenting to her.

Nowadays, more or less 8 in 10 Brazilians say that the president is doing a bad job. She’s very unpopular, and that goes for all social classes and all the regions of Brazil. But there's a difference between the people that believe that she's doing a bad job, and the people who believe she should be impeached because of that.

“Around two-thirds of Brazilians are supporting impeachment right now.”

Around two-thirds of Brazilians are supporting impeachment right now. It's a majority, but that also means that we have one-third of Brazilians -- quite a big group -- saying that they don't want an impeachment.

The problem is that the division has become very polarized. This high level of polarization in the last couple of years in Brazil is more typical of Venezuela, of Argentina, but we are not used to it. Everybody’s a little bit lost. How do we deal with this deep political difference inside our intimate circle, inside the people that we love, inside the people that we have to deal on a daily basis?

What role does the media play in framing that crisis and debate?

Well, one of the consequences of the polarization is that people are very suspicious now in Brazil of institutions -- both the political institutions, such as the parties, Congress and the court, but also civil society institutions like the press. You have people on both sides of this polarization accusing these institutions of being partisan. It’s become sort of a black or white position.

If you are supporting the government now in Brazil, you're basically saying that the media is full of liars and that you can’t trust them in any circumstance, and so on. But many people who are against the government are also blaming the media, saying that the media is not critical enough of the government.

What people are doing more and more now is using social networks in order to gather information and organize demonstrations. But the problem with that is that we don't have good gatekeepers on the social networks, and people tend to believe what they want to believe. If you are against the government, you are going to read the bloggers and you are going to search for the sites which are also very much against the government. If you are supporting the government, you're going to look for the people on the social networks who are also supporting the government. It’s become this very dangerous group think.

It’s allowed for echo chambers of people only hearing what they want to hear.

Exactly, and this is a very serious problem now. If you look to surveys in Brazil right now about the people who are in demonstrations, they are very critical of the media. They are more critical if you go to the demonstrations that are supporting the government, but they are also critical of the media if they’re against the government.

In Brazil, I don’t think you have one newspaper, magazine or TV station that is seen by both parties, both sides of this polarization, as a source of information that they can trust.

They think these institutions have become mouthpieces of political or economic powers on either the right or the left?

I don’t think they’ve become the mouthpieces of these interest groups, but many people perceive them as pawns in this political game.

How has the debate about partisan and political divides split Brazil along class and ethnic lines?

It’s a controversial issue, because pro-government groups are saying that the poor people in Brazil are supporting them and that the people who are conducting the demonstrations against the government are mostly middle class and upper middle class. Well, yes and no.

“If you go to the demonstrations you’re not going to see many poor Brazilians.”

It’s complicated because 8 in 10 Brazilians are saying that they don’t trust the president and that the president is doing a bad job. We don’t have 80 percent of Brazilians in the middle class, so it cuts through all the major social groups in Brazil. But at the same time, the people who are taking a more active role in the demonstrations are mostly middle class.

If you go to the demonstrations, you’re not going to see many poor Brazilians. This is one of the reasons that explains why these demonstrations are about issues such as corruption and not about issues such as police violence or racism or the lack of good sanitation. Those are an agenda that is not really strong in the middle class.

What could Brazil’s government look like if Rousseff is impeached?

If she is impeached, the president would be our current vice president Michel Temer. He is a leader of the PMDB, Brazil’s biggest political party. He would probably implement a very strong austerity policy.

This austerity policy would be very difficult to implement in Brazil -- it would be difficult anywhere. If it’s difficult in a country such as Spain, Portugal or Greece which have fairly good welfare systems you can imagine how hard it would in Brazil which does not have a welfare state.

If a Temer government tries to implement an austerity government in Brazil, social reaction would be strong. One of the problems that they would face is that the trade unions are basically allies of Rousseff and the [ruling] Workers' Party. If they were in opposition they could be a very powerful enemy, they could go on strike or block roads in Brazil.

At the same time, if Dilma remains president and isn’t impeached, the prognosis would also be very difficult, because she doesn’t have support of congress and is basically hostage to any decision that congress takes. So this is the political deadlock we're facing now in Brazil, and there is no easy way out.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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