Rousseff’s supporters play for time

Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party says it will fight to maintain power despite a devastating impeachment defeat for President Dilma Rousseff in the lower house of parliament.

Although the opposition camp celebrated Sunday’s vote and prepared for a new administration under Vice-President Michel Temer, the government side said supporters should prepare for the next stage of the impeachment process in the Senate.

“The Workers’ Party calls on all men and women committed to democracy to remain mobilised and occupy the streets against this fraudulent impeachment,” said Rui Falcão, the party’s national president.

Despite the fiery rhetoric, the momentum is overwhelmingly with the opposition, which is poised to give Brazil its first centre-right government in more than 13 years.

The House speaker, Eduardo Cunha – a conservative evangelical who has proved Rousseff’s nemesis – oversaw the passage of the impeachment motion comfortably with 367 votes, 25 more than the necessary two-thirds majority, prompting opposition politicians, many of them draped in the national flag, to burst into the football chant Eu Sou Brasileiro (I am Brazilian).

The process now goes to the Senate, where only a simple majority is needed to begin deliberations that would force the president to step aside for 180 days until a final verdict is reached.

Polls suggest more than 60% of the public favour the removal of Rousseff, who was once one of the world’s most popular leaders but now suffers approval ratings of just 10% as a result of a dire economic recession, political tumult and the Lava Jato corruption investigation into kickbacks from the state oil company Petrobras. Politicians from most of the major parties have been implicated, including several senior members of the Workers’ Party.

The president and vice-president have yet to react publicly to the vote, a sign that they are still processing the seismic political shift under way. But Temer’s supporters in his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party are already anticipating the change ahead.

Moreira Franco, a senior party member, said on Twitter that Brazil now has a good opportunity for political and economic reform, but he urged the opposition not to become complacent. “We need to maintain a national mobilisation so that the Senate hears the noise on the streets,” he tweeted.

Brazil Dilma Rousseff supporters oppose impeachment
Dilma Rousseff’s party members have been vocal in their support of her. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Many challenges lie ahead. The vice-president has promised a sound fiscal policy, but this would mean austerity cuts in the midst of an already dire recession. Many of his supporters, especially those up for re-election later this year, will be urging him to maintain public spending.

The banking system, which is staggering under a mountain of nonperforming loans, is another major risk that he must handle carefully. Many of these questions relate to how far to the right Temer is willing to move. One indication will be whether he will appoint Jair Bolsonaro, a supporter of the former military dictatorship, to his Cabinet.

There is also the constant threat posed to politicians of most stripes by the Lava Jato investigation. Until now, the opposition has used revelations of corruption to tarnish the government. But many of them are also threatened by accusations of bribery and money laundering.

Many would clearly like Temer to weaken the independence of the prosecutors and the federal police, which he could do by appointing a sympathetic justice minister, but this would be extremely unpopular with the public, who have come to put more faith in the judiciary than their elected representatives.

A key question in this regard will be the fate of Cunha, who is at the centre of both the Lava Jato probe and the impeachment drive. His supporters are demanding that Temer kill an ethics committee investigation of the speaker as a reward for pushing through the impeachment vote. Given the many problems that Brazil faces, Workers’ Party politicians believe they can regain the initiative with a little time out of office.

Lindberg Farias, a Workers’ Party senator from Rio de Janeiro, said it will be difficult to block the first vote in the Senate, but there is a chance with the second vote, which needs a two-thirds majority and will take place up to six months after the first.

Farias expects the Senate leader, Renan Calheiros, to drag the process on for as long as possible because he is a rival of Temer’s within the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. The longer it goes on, the more chance he believes the left has of a recovery.

“The public don’t like Temer and Cunha. I think, within two months of their administration, opinion will shift against them and people will move to protect Rousseff,” he said.

After this week’s crushing defeat, this sounds like wishful thinking. But moods can change quickly. As Rousseff has learned to her cost, public opinion and political loyalties in Brazil are as solid as quicksand. – © Guardian News & Media 2016

Jonathan Watts
Jonathan Watts works from Bristol, England. Copywriter, Classics MA and author. Bristol, books, gigs, dogs. Jonathan Watts has over 100 followers on Twitter.
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