top of page

Dilma Rousseff and the Political Point of No Return

Samuel Perkins

Deputies shouted slogans and flapped placards in a passionate frenzy on Monday, as a congressional committee wound down with millions of Brazilians watching carefully. Charged with examining Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, their decision to recommend her impeachment for breaking financial law around the 2014 budget kicked into gear the formal mechanism for removing the president from office.

Rousseff is a former guerrilla and anti-government activist who rose to prominence in former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government. After impressing the President as part of his committee on energy policy, she became his Minister for Energy before becoming his Chief of Staff in 2005. In 2010, she stepped down from that role to run for president herself.

Fast forward six years and we find her at the centre of a large-scale breakdown in public trust in the national government. Massive demonstrations have rocked Brazil for months. Hundreds of thousands gather in the nadir of a recession, fed by fear of welfare reform, fury at the Petrobras corruption scandal, and outrage at the Rousseff administration’s impotent response to the crisis. The multi-billion dollar scandal of graft and corruption centred on state-run oil company Petrobras has seen hundreds of politicians implicated from across the political spectrum. President Rousseff has been stained by the scandal, as she chaired Petrobras from 2003 to 2010 but denies all knowledge of any wrongdoing.

Rousseff’s line as consistently been to paint the accusations as an attempt by the Opposition to discredit and remove her. Saying they never accepted the stunningly close result of the 2014 presidential election, Rousseff has downplayed the legitimate concerns of many Brazilians. While the eighty-five million people that have recently joined Brazil’s middle class worry about slipping back into poverty, images of politicians accused of billions of dollars of graft flit across there TV screens.

Multiple years of negative growth are putting a strain on the people of Brazil in a way that they are unaccustomed to. When high oil prices were fuelling cheap credit and preferential treatment for domestic companies, and government was strong enough to support an expansion of the welfare state, it was good to be a Brazilian worker. Now that the price of oil has collapsed and oil producing states are in fierce competition to attract foreign energy companies, Rousseff’s administration is disintegrating in the face of accusations of gross corruption and economic mismanagement. Coming in on top of these structural and reputational issues are accusations of criminal wrongdoings by Rousseff herself. she has been accused of manipulating budget figures in the lead up to the 2014 election in order to disguise deep and worsening financial deficiencies.

It is far too late for Rousseff to keep playing the victim. Getting serious on corruption should be her first priority. She has not been directly implicated in graft, even as she has been implicated in manipulating budget numbers prior to the 2014 election. Keeping these two issues distinct but foremost in her mind should be her immediate concern. While in the eyes of the public, her legitimacy is taking hits from both of these issues, Rousseff’s most immediate danger is from the parliament. The impeachment proceedings against her were commenced in December last year and restarted in mid March, a move which she called “a coup” two weeks ago, and now have crossed the additional hurdle of referral to the legislature’s lower house. While this is where the real political danger comes from, there is not much more she can do on this point. The impeachment committee has recommended she be removed. Her former ally, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, has ditched her ruling coalition to preserve some of its own legitimacy. Without some miraculous parliamentary support, Rousseff is on a ticking clock. A fortnight ago, focusing on the Petrobras scandal and pledging to reform the energy and mining sectors would have been her best bet to retain what is left of her credibility and leave politics with some dignity. Now, doing so risks exposing her to the (probably very reasonable) accusation of cynically trying to save her own reputation.

Doing this the wrong way would likely shred her support within the ruling Worker’s Party (PT), as it is mostly government members of the legislature that have been implicated by Operation Car Wash, the investigation set up to examine the Petrobras scandal. The depth of the scandal is so great that there are not many segments of the political elite that are untouched. there have been 179 indictments, and over 230 persons are under investigation. The judge in charge of Car Wash Sergio Moro released a list of 200 names in March of politicians who had received suspicious donations. The list was later retracted, as Moro said the origins of the donations were unclear (sparking accusations that the release was designed to hurt the PT politically).

But it is not so easy as hanging your own party out to dry. Disemboweling the PT and removing lead characters of this whole saga would help repair her image for anti-government protesters and shore up legitimacy with her supporters in the general public. But it is also true that a president needs the support of parliamentarians to go about the business of governing. With an approval rating that has gone from 79 per cent in March 2013 to a recent low of 8 per cent, Rousseff cannot claim to bring the public with her when advocating reform to parliament. It will be a delicate game of balancing her anti-corruption drive with the political promise of rejuvenated public support.

On this point, Rousseff’s history is an asset. a former guerrilla fighter during the days of the military dictatorship, and a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader in her previous term of office (she had fired multiple ministers for infractions against financial decency), Rousseff may plausibly declare war against those bleeding Petrobras dry. the question that remains here is this; has she overcommitted to her position of denial, claiming that even during her seven years as head of the organisation, she saw nothing wrong? Her behaviour so far has not softened this position. The botched appointment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula de silva to be her chief of staff (allegedly to protect him from prosecution under Car Wash) was blocked by Brazil’s Supreme Court, and sparked an anti-government demonstration that reportedly attracted over a million people.

If Rousseff decides to go down this war path, commentators will be watching carefully to see if she can achieve this balance (not least the foreign energy companies waiting impatiently for much needed reforms that have been stalled by this scandal). Her alternative is to use her remaining weeks to continue to deny and disrupt, a strategy that will see her popularity continue to flatline and eliminate any possibility of a political resurrection down the road.