Sunday, 18 October 2015

Brazil in crisis

By Jeffrey Karp

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff is being threatened with impeachment over a series of serious corruption scandals to do with the alleged misuse of funds during her 2014 re-election campaign. As the political drama unfolded, Professor Jeffrey Karp represented the Electoral Integrity Project at the September 2015 Day of Research of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies.

Karp provided the keynote at this year's September 15th session themed 'Political Reform and Participation'. Guiding the roundtable discussions were questions such as 'What political reform is being demanded by society at large?' and 'What political reforms can increase the quality of democracy in Brazil?'.

Professor Jeff Karp reports.

In the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Watergate, scholars debated whether political scandals could undermine faith and trust in government and political institutions. No one doubts that scandals can have adverse affects for politicians and political leaders. But it was once widely believed that the political system benefited from a ‘‘reservoir of institutional goodwill’’ which was assumed to be distinct from how citizens view incumbents and the specific actions or decisions that are made in the institutions in which they reside. Now there is little doubt that scandals, which are becoming a recurring feature of political life in both advanced and emerging democracies, can undermine confidence in the political system.

Brazil faces a political crisis that has implicated nearly half of the members of Congress and six different political parties. The scandal, dubbed “Operation Carwash” is a huge money laundering scheme, that involves the state-owned oil company Petrobras. It holds a near monopoly on petrol sales controlling one of the biggest oil deposits discovered in the world in this century and producing 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. Dozens of senior politicians have allegedly received kickbacks from oil contracts as part of a scheme to buy votes. Illicit donations are assumed to have funded Rousseff’s 2014 reelection campaign. Meanwhile the country is suffering from a severe economic crisis. The economy has gone into the worst recession in 25 years and unemployment is at a five year high.

It remains to be seen whether Rousseff, who has not yet completed a year of her second term, will survive. Her approval ratings have fallen to a dismal 9%. When I visited the Chamber of Deputies last month, members of Congress were openly debating whether to impeach the President. Impeachment would be the first since 1992. However, two-thirds of the legislators in the lower house would need to support an impeachment vote for it to pass along with 54 Senators. The chances of impeachment depend on whether the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, Brazil’s largest party and a member of Rousseff's ruling coalition, turns on the President. The Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, who left the PMDB in July, has also been implicated in the scandal. He is accused of taking as much as $40 million in bribes for himself and his allies and hiding the funds in his Swiss bank account. Brazil’s main opposition parties have publicly demanded his resignation.

In early October the Federal Accounts Court ruled that Rousseff's government's accounting practices were illegal, and the Brazilian electoral court, the TSE, has decided to probe the alleged illegalities of her re-election campaign. Whilst a ruling will not necessarily lead to sanctions, it will pave the way for a legal and political battle, which could result in new elections if Rousseff's 2014 win is declared invalid. These are uncertain times for Brazil's political elite. 

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