The Cost of Saving Rousseff

The desperate attempt to prevent Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment is driving the Workers' Party ever rightward.

Eduardo Cunha and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at a ceremony in April 2015. Antônio Cruz

Dilma Rousseff will certainly tell you that it is not easy to be the president of Brazil; it never is, but nowadays even more so. For a significant share of 2015 her government has been engulfed in a corruption scandal involving the massive state energy company, Petrobras, whose board of directors she formerly led; numerous state officials; and the country’s construction giants.

Known as Lava Jato Operation (“Operation Car Wash”), the scandal added strength to months of right-wing protests demanding Rousseff’s impeachment and attacking the Workers’ Party (PT) she represents.

This does not mean that we should feel sorry for her. Far from it, as this is something the PT has brought on itself (despite the party’s hopes that the consequences will not last longer than Rousseff’s mandate — full or cut short as the Brazilian right would have it). Though the crisis has been seized upon by the Right, its roots lie in the party’s historical modus operandi.

The Catch-All Advantage

Elections in Brazil have long worked on an alliance basis, a practice characteristic of the country’s pluriparty system, which counts over thirty political parties. These alliances, however, have come to have little to do with ideological affinity and program alignment. Although parties do cluster into right wing or left wing, the tendency has been to subject these to catch-all platforms.

The strongest party using the catch-all strategy is the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which emerged from the democratic opening in 1979 and superseded the old MDB of the military regime’s limited two-party system. Between 1985 and 1990 the PMDB held the presidential office through the terms of Tancredo Neves and José Sarney, but ever since the introduction of direct elections the party has taken a back seat — until recently.

The party switched from an alliance with the center-right Social Democracy Party (PSDB) during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s last mandate and the first Lula mandate to full-on support for the PT during Rousseff’s election in 2010, steering the PMDB’s Michel Temer into the vice presidency. As Rousseff weakened as a presidential figure, especially this year, the PMDB managed to navigate back to the driver’s seat through its control of Congress and its strategic access to the executive office.

When one party supports another party for the presidential bid, it traditionally gets ministerial appointments and other important government posts. The PMDB controls the Chamber of Deputies through its president, Eduardo Cunha, and steers the Senate through its president, Renan Calheiros.

Its position as Rousseff’s main ally allowed it even more privileges, and the continuing turmoil regarding the president’s seat brought more opportunities for the PMDB to set the agenda (both the general one and the one that would later be known as the Brazil Agenda).

The polarization of the 2014 federal elections carried over into this year, as right-wing social movements swept thousands into the streets to impeach Rousseff. Although the actual likelihood of impeachment throughout the year varied according to one’s political perspective, the real effect of the right-wing protests has been to strengthen Eduardo Cunha and his conservative agenda, one whose reactionary content adds a harder edge to the PMDB’s traditional catch-all positioning (even during its PSDB support days).

The March 15 right-wing protests gave Cunha the opportunity to dig up old bills and introduce new ones attacking youths, indigenous peoples, and reproductive rights. This complemented Rousseff’s own reversals, one of which was the appointment of Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, a sign of austerity measures to come.

For the radical left this meant that a major struggle would have to be fought on both the legislative and the executive levels. Some groups rallied against PEC 215, a constitutional amendment likely to push indigenous lands into the hands of agro-business and mining; others struggled to defend the national housing program, where cuts threatened to set back hard-won victories.

The opportunistic approach of Cunha’s PMDB toward Rousseff and the PT made these conservative setbacks possible. When the PT was strong, the PMDB accepted a closer relationship with Rousseff. But as impeachment sentiment put the PT on the defensive, forcing it to defend its democratic character and Rousseff’s legitimacy, Cunha pivoted to take advantage of the crisis. As the year progressed, impeachment loomed as much as a card in Cunha’s political maneuvers as a demand of the right-wing social movements (who even attempted to push their point by occupying the halls of the Congress).

By openly breaking from the government, Cunha allowed the PMDB to approach the government more offensively, even as they clung to Temer’s vice presidency and their institutional alliance with the PT. This replicated their historical catch-all strategy in dramatic fashion.

The Brazil Agenda

Faced with opposition from the Right and from her own allied cadres, Rousseff has had to find new ways to deal with the PT’s fragile hold. Up to now, most nominations and party deals had governability in mind, which is part of the Workers’ Party’s modus operandi in times of depoliticization.

The strategy consists of making concessions and compromises to the allied base, while still claiming to uphold social values on which the lower classes depend and maintaining a firm opposition to the Right. With the introduction of a bold austerity plan, Rousseff lost the latter option, and is now desperately clinging to her allied base — despite the evident meaninglessness of alliance in the current context.

This is where Michel Temer comes in, as a mediating vice president from the PMDB. In August, Senate President Renan Calheiros introduced the Brazil Agenda, a Rousseff-approved package stuffed with reactionary austerity measures effectively handing off multiple social rights and services to the private initiative and limiting any rights remaining. At this point, Cunha stood as Rousseff’s main opposition in Congress, so Temer posed as a mediator between Cunha and their own party in order to ensure that there would be no obstacles to the agenda from the legislature.

Former President Lula, who mastered the ability to frame setbacks as necessary for overall economic health, approved of the agenda and gave his blessing to the trade-off proposed by the PMDB: “We rule out Rousseff’s impeachment, you implement the agenda.”

The coup PT supporters warned of for so long ended up being from inside the PT, with the help of the PMDB. It not only reaffirmed Rousseff’s mandate as weak and vulnerable to blackmail, but also cemented the view that, excepting one or two deputies, the PT’s commitment to governability over any other concern had sped past the point of no return.

As Temer and Calheiros orchestrated the Brazil Agenda, Cunha was not as invincible as he seemed to be a few months earlier. The truce proposed by the PMDB was intended to be mutual; Cunha would give the precarious government some breathing room, and the government would support him if his position came under threat.

Eventually Cunha became a target of Judge Sergio Moro and his Lava Jato investigation. Moro was once the enemy of all PT supporters and hailed by the new right-wing movement, but he managed to break away from these party lines by investigating Cunha and others outside the PT.

Cunha is now perhaps in an even more precarious position than Rousseff. In the past month, he temporarily lost support from part of the Right in the Chamber of Deputies and alienated others due to his constant threats and procedural maneuvers — traits that left some comparing him to the fictitious Frank Underwood in what would be called “House of Cunha.”

The right-wing activists that still look to him as a leader have lost steam, as their occupation outside Congress has been removed by the police. The occupation claimed that it “booked” the area with Cunha, and even asked bystanders for credentials. The removal happened after members of this camp were apprehended with firearms and threatened to shoot at activists from the black women’s movement.

Cunha’s vulnerability has nevertheless neither tamed the Right nor strengthened Rousseff’s grip on governance. The PT has teetered on the edge of capitulation for a long time; perhaps it only needs one last grand gesture of compromise to seal the deal.

Currently, the ethics commission of the Chamber of Deputies is meeting to decide on Cunha’s fate; his attempt to prevent their meeting fulled further dissent against his practices in the House, including among the PT cadres. Cunha has chosen the last remaining option: to let the request for Rousseff’s impeachment go through in the chamber if the PT deputies turn against him.

Despite the threats, the three PT deputies nevertheless positioned themselves against him, heeding PT party president Rui Falcão’s warnings that conceding to Cunha amid a corruption scandal would cause irreparable damage to the party’s image. The choice was between saving governability and saving face; now that governability is nearly lost (and maybe the presidency!), saving face may be the wiser choice. Whether the PT still has a face to save is another story.

What Now?

This year has proved to be one of the most contentious in Brazilian politics since the last impeachment of a president, in 1992. Brazil’s political scene is now holding its breath to see who will fall first: Rousseff or Cunha. Meanwhile, a letter by Temer, full of complaints about Rousseff’s supposed distrust of him, was just released to the public. While it indicates Temer’s own plans to break from the government, the letter comes across as weak and infantile, and could prove to be self-sabotaging.

Whether Rousseff will choose a new vice president is unclear, but it would avoid a scenario in which her impeachment handed both the Congress and the executive to the PMDB. She has also strengthened dialogue with members of the PMDB that do not fall directly under Cunha or Temer’s control.

As for Cunha, since introducing the proposal for Rousseff’s impeachment, he has regained support from the Right, which intends to get a piece of the cake by demonstrating that Cunha is not the sole proponent of impeachment. The right-wing social movements plan to take to the streets again, and the country may see the largest demonstrations yet, fueled by the viability of impeachment in the near horizon.

The Workers’ Party and its base is calling for protests to “defend democracy” —  ironic given the party’s support for an anti-terrorism bill that would curtail the right to protest. What is certain is that if both Cunha and Rousseff fall while leaving Temer unscathed, the PMDB will still be in a somewhat safe position, and maybe even with a shot at the presidency.