Just under a month after President Dilma Rousseff was suspended by the senate for an impeachment trial, a series of political shocks has raised the once improbable prospect of her returning to power.
Interim president Michel Temer’s government has faced a series of crises, including the removal of two ministers, and he – as Rousseff once did – now faces strong public frustration at the ongoing recession, which the World Bank this week predicted will extend into a third year. The developments have led to the suggestion that Rousseff might yet survive a final senate vote on her impeachment, which is currently set for early August, just as the Olympic Games begin in Rio de Janeiro.
The latest blow to Temer came just this week as federal prosecutors requested the arrest of four of his closest allies, including a former president, the senate leader and the recently suspended speaker of the lower house, in the Operation Car Wash corruption probe at state oil giant Petrobras.
“During this month we will see lots of political earthquakes in Brazil,” says Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. “The level of instability is even bigger than it was before the last impeachment vote.”
Rousseff, a member of the center-left Workers Party, was suspended from office on May 12 so she could face a trial on charges of budget manipulation, a move she called a “coup.” Her vice-president Temer, of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party, assumed power and immediately appointed his own cabinet and announced a new policy agenda. If Rousseff’s impeachment were to be successful, he would remain president until 2018.
But Temer has already come under repeated fire for appointing an all-white, all-male cabinet with a number of ministers who face corruption accusations. His planning minister, Romero Jucá, stood down after a tape recording surfaced in which he implied the motivation for Rousseff’s ouster was to neutralize Operation Car Wash. Temer also removed his transparency minister for similar reasons. He was also forced to abandon plans to abolish the culture ministry after a backlash from artists and performers.
“He is not a strong leader as he has not got to his position through an election,” says Juliano Griebeler, of the Barral M Jorge political consultancy in Brasilia. “But he has been very quick to respond to conflict and criticism in and outside of government.”
His success will depend largely on whether he can rescue Brazil from its worst recession since the 1930s, with GDP contracting 5.4% over the past year. Rousseff faced gridlock in congress and while Temer has had some initial successes, it remains to be seen if he can unite Brazil’s fractured political parties to make economic tough choices on pressing issues such as pension reform.
Even as he has moved to limit public spending and floated cuts to health, education and social programs, Congress has passed a law to give pay rises of up to 41% to federal government officials — including the supreme court judges who are likely to have the power to make the ultimate decision on Rousseff’s impeachment. This controversial decision came a week after the government estimated its 2016 fiscal deficit at $47 billion.
Temer’s struggles could play to Rousseff’s favor. Few originally gave the suspended President much hope of survival; her opponents had already mustered a two-thirds senate majority in the May vote, the proportion required to confirm the impeachment in August. However, she needs only 27 votes to be sure of defeating the motion, five more than she got last month. Several senators now say they could change their minds.
Acir Gurgacz, a senator from the Democratic Workers’ Party who voted for the impeachment trial, said the crises facing Temer will “influence not only my opinion, but that of the majority.” Another senator who voted in favor, Cristovam Buarque, of the Popular Socialist Party, added: “The game has not been decided, no.”
“We can reverse the situation,” Rousseff told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, claiming she felt support gathering in the Senate. “So, yes, I believe I will return.”
But the fate of both Rousseff and Temer, who were elected on a joint ticket in 2014, may yet be determined by further twist and turns in Operation Car Wash, the corruption probe. Businessman Marcelo Odebrecht, who is serving a preliminary sentence of 19 years and four months for leading a construction company at the heart of the scandal, is said to be close to finalizing a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, potentially implicating many senior politicians.
Among them is Rousseff, who has so far avoided being personally tainted by the scandal, despite serving as the chair of Petrobras while the fraud was happening. According to a report in the magazine Isto É this week, Odebrecht will allege that Rousseff personally solicited from him an illegal donation of $3.5 million for her 2014 election campaign.
If that claim sticks, Brazil’s electoral court — which is already examining irregularities surrounding those elections — could cancel the results and order a new election. Rousseff and Temer, both of whom suffer from very poor approval ratings, would likely be turned out of office. “This can be a watershed,” Santoro says. “Odebrecht financed every major political campaign in Brazil. If Marcelo Odebrecht decides to end the game now, that’s it.”
With street protests simmering against the government and the ongoing economic woes impacting families hard, little public attention has been paid to the Olympics, which are scheduled to start in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5. Rousseff is suspended for 180 days but senate leaders have expressed a desire to press ahead with the trial, with the impeachment vote now expected in early August, just as the Olympic events kick off. The drama outside the Olympic Stadium may yet overshadow the spectacle within it.