How Brazil's Politics Descended Into Chaos

After weathering a bruising campaign to drive her from office, Dilma appears to be on her way out.

As the world prepares to turn its attention to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff faces the humiliating reality of being unseated by her vice president, Michel Temer, and defending herself in an 180-day impeachment trial.

Mounting corruption charges and a deepening economic crisis have plagued Rousseff’s second term, while her political opponents and former allies have launched a bruising campaign to drive her from office. Following a series of budgetary missteps and failed political machinations to bolster her faltering presidency, Rousseff appears to be on her way out.

An Ailing Economy And Scandal

Rousseff’s chief antagonist, the former president of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, launched impeachment proceedings against her in December. (Cunha has since been removed from his post to face his own corruption charges.) The move to impeach Rousseff was based on allegations of dubious government accounting practices that the Federal Accounts Court deemed illegal in October.

The Rousseff administration’s attempt to cover up an alarming fiscal deficit, an act known as "fiscal backpedaling," points to the even greater problem Rousseff faced during her second term — an economic slowdown that quickly transformed into the country’s worst recession in decades.

Although the impeachment proceedings were presumably launched to investigate Rousseff's fiscal backpedaling, they quickly became a platform from which to judge the state of the economy and the larger issue of corruption in Brazilian politics.

As the economy worsened in early 2016 and the campaign against Rousseff intensified, support for her removal grew. In March, one poll found that nearly 7 in 10 Brazilians backed the president’s eventual impeachment.

With former allies abandoning her and members of Rousseff's Workers' Party (PT) implicated in "Operation Car Wash," the investigation into a larger corruption scandal involving the state-owned oil company, Rousseff soon found herself isolated at the top.

Brazilians rallied for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff after her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inácio da Silva was implicated in a corruption scandal.
Brazilians rallied for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff after her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inácio da Silva was implicated in a corruption scandal.
Adriano Machado / Reuters

Lula's Return Backfires

Rousseff made a surprise decision in March to appoint her predecessor and mentor, former President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, as her chief of staff, a move many considered an act of desperation. As HuffPost Brazil Editor-In-Chief Diego Iraheta wrote at the time, the once extraordinarily popular Silva was considered Rousseff’s “silver bullet,” capable of "pacifying the allied base" that had fractured shortly after her re-election.

Unfortunately for the president, Silva was under suspicion in Operation Car Wash corruption inquiries, and controversy over his appointment only worsened when the lead investigator in Operation Car Wash, Judge Sérgio Moro, released recordings of Silva's conversations with other politicians, including Rousseff, that suggested “an apparent scenario of attempted obstruction of justice,” according to Moro.

Rousseff has not been implicated in the Operation Car Wash investigation, but after the recordings came to light, her critics saw her decision to welcome Silva into her administration as a maneuver designed to shield her mentor from prosecution as he weathered corruption charges. Though many criticized Moro’s decision to release the recordings as reckless and politically motivated, the move successfully stalled Silva’s confirmation as chief of staff, and his appointment is now under review by the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, many scandal-weary Brazilians saw this episode as yet another example of corruption and took to the streets to share their displeasure with the political elite. In March, an estimated 3.5 million people in over 200 cities across Brazil voiced their disapproval, effectively giving the impeachment movement the public imprimatur it sought.

When 367 members of Brazil’s lower house of Congress -- many of them battling charges of corruption themselves -- voted to advance the impeachment proceedings in mid-April, the movement took a particularly ugly turn. Radical conservative lawmaker and well-known bigot Jair Bolsonaro made news when he dedicated his impeachment vote to former Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, known for his role in the torture and disappearance of numerous political activists during Brazil's 22-year military dictatorship. Bolsonaro's vote was a clear jab at Rousseff, who was tortured during the country's military regime.

Rousseff Rejects Impeachment As A 'Coup'

The country’s first female president has not been shy about addressing the sexist undertones of the campaign against her, nor has she endured the public proceedings quietly. Shortly after the vote in the lower house of Congress, Rousseff flew to New York City to display her international leadership before U.N. leaders convened to honor the historic climate change agreement. She used her time before international press to confront her critics head-on and reassert her belief that the impeachment effort was nothing short of an organized coup against her government.

Despite the Rousseff administration’s loud and frequent protests and last-ditch efforts to retain control, including a recent failed attempt by Cunha's successor to annul his chamber’s decision and a failed late-night appeal to the Supreme Court -- the Senate sealed Dilma’s fate on Wednesday. In a 55-22 vote, a majority of senators backed sending Rousseff to impeachment hearings. Now that the Senate has green-lit impeachment hearings, Rousseff will be removed from the presidency for 180 days to face trial -- the outcome of which is uncertain. She’ll be replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), who will act as interim president.

Presumptive interim president Michel Temer is perceived as a political insider in Brazil and is deeply unpopular among voters.
Presumptive interim president Michel Temer is perceived as a political insider in Brazil and is deeply unpopular among voters.
Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

The New Leadership Isn’t So New

Temer is hardly the breath of fresh air the Brazilian public craves, however. The 75-year-old politician is friends with the recently suspended leader of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, one of multiple PMDB politicians facing corruption charges. Temer also enjoys terrible approval ratings among voters, who are almost as eager to see him leave office as they are to see Rousseff go.

The vice president's ascension to the country’s highest office amid ongoing political turmoil and intrigue -- Temer also faces an impeachment request -- is yet another example of the constant hypocrisy that has plagued Brazilian politics in the last year.

The moment he assumes power, Temer will be tasked with turning around a sinking economy, reforming bloated government programs and cleaning out corruption at the highest level. Such reformist efforts are unlikely to come from the political veteran.

As HuffPost Brazil's Iraheta recently wrote: “The automatic rise of Michel Temer to power, thanks to the collapse of Dilma’s government, doesn’t solve the political and ethical crisis that Brazil currently faces. On the contrary, this supposed solution may fan the flames.”

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that Brazil's senate voted in favor of sending Rousseff to an impeachment trial.

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