Brazil’s Middle-Class Revolt

The effort to impeach President Dilma Rousseff is a sign of a maturing democracy.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady
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            Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff at the presidential palace in Brasilia, April 1.


Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff at the presidential palace in Brasilia, April 1. Photo: Associated Press
 

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff charged last week that the effort in Congress to impeach her is a “coup” attempt launched by her political adversaries. “I want tolerance, dialogue and peace,” Ms. Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) averred in a speech to supporters. “And that will only be possible if democracy is preserved.”

Framing the effort to remove her from office as undemocratic is Ms. Rousseff’s best hope for political survival—if you don’t count buying allies in Congress. It’s also ridiculous.

The impeachment petition has been in Congress since last year. But on Tuesday the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) quit the president’s governing coalition, raising the odds that it will go forward. The PMDB is reacting to a popular outcry against the president. She is alleged, among other things, to have violated the country’s fiscal responsibility law with stimulus spending during her re-election campaign, then of using creative accounting to hide it.

Last month some three million Brazilians took to the streets to call for her removal. Last week the country’s bar association filed its own petition with Congress requesting impeachment.

Brazil’s economic outlook is grim, and the recent discoveries of rampant corruption are demoralizing.

But it can take a crisis to bring about reform, and the nonviolent, popular pushback is notable.

The call to impeach is a sign of a maturing democracy in which civil society is confident enough to rise up against the political class.

This vitality is aided by three relatively recent developments: the end of hyperinflation, the exchange of ideas and information on social media, and the ability and willingness of prosecutors to use plea bargains to investigate organized crime.

Ms. Rousseff took office on Jan. 1, 2011, succeeding her mentor, Lula da Silva. In his second four-year term, Mr. Silva gradually undermined the modernization of the economy begun by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003). He also spent heavily to get Ms. Rousseff elected. She inherited a nation with rising expectations and declining prospects for meeting them.

Her economic policies were no better than Mr. da Silva’s. By June 2013, large protests erupted around the country against government spending on World Cup stadiums while hospitals and roads deteriorated, and economic growth and investment slowed. Ironically, Ms. Rousseff escaped that bind when a smaller, hard-left minority infiltrated the peaceful demonstrations, destroying property and blocking roads.

As I noted at the time, the large crowds were angry with the government but wanted no part of the violence organized and executed by disaffected radicals who sought anarchy. So the demonstrations waned and calm returned. But resentment against Ms. Rousseff continued to simmer.

Since then government prosecutors have uncovered a web of pay-to-play corruption schemes involving the PT and other political parties. A number of former executives at the state-owned oil company Petrobras PBR -0.19 % and in the construction industry are caught up in the scandals. On Friday federal police arrested two former PT officials. One faces corruption charges; the other is expected to be questioned about Petrobras contracts and bribery.

Before gaining the power to strike plea bargains in 2013, prosecutors had few tools available to squeeze lower-level criminals in order to bust those further up the chain of command. Now accomplices who can provide evidence about their bosses can have their sentences reduced.

Apparently this has boosted cooperation. The work of these prosecutors and judges also demonstrates independence within Brazil’s judiciary.

The economy is sinking. In 2015 GDP contracted by 3.8%. This year it is expected to shrink by more than 3%. According to John Welch, a managing director at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Capital Markets, unemployment is 9.5% and rising. He also says the fiscal deficit for 2016 is expected to be above 10% of GDP and inflation is running at 10.4%. Those crowds in the streets are mostly the nation’s middle class, which knows that without stability and growth their aspirations remain dreams.

Corruption scandals linking politicians and corporate fat cats during an economic decline hurt any government. But social media has exacerbated the pain. Brazilians once relied on traditional media outlets, which are dependent on government advertising to stay afloat. That led to self-censorship.

Now the news breaks through the Internet and traditional outlets either cover it or face irrelevance.

On March 30 the online media outlet “The Antagonist” boasted on its blog of getting 200 million hits per month. It noted that the online version of Folha de Saõ Paulo, the country’s largest newspaper, has 286 million hits per month.

Brazilians are proud of having emerged from a military dictatorship in 1985 and they believe deeply in elected government. But they also believe that a ballot-box victory is not a blank check and that presidents should be accountable.

The clean up of Brazilian politics is far from over and Ms. Rousseff could survive. But her allegation that the use of the impeachment provision of the constitution is akin to a putsch is a sign of desperation.

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