By Jonathan Power
The Brazilians have an elected president. They must keep her. If Dilma Rousseff is pushed to resign, democracy has failed.
Two years ago, she won re-election handsomely. That is the source of her mandate. From that she derives her legitimacy. The only thing that could topple her is if hard evidence emerges that she is crooked−in her case, that she supposedly stole millions of dollars from the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras, of which she was once head of the board. The National Congress would then be within its rights to discuss her impeachment.
However, there is no evidence of her personal corruption−although there is evidence aplenty that her party, the Workers’ Party, has received a lot of black money, not just from Petrobras.
Brazil is not a parliamentary democracy. It is not necessary for her to have a majority in parliament to rule, anymore than Barack Obama does in the U.S. Congress. Unlike in, say, the U.K. or Denmark, if members of parliament withdraw support for a head of government, he or she does not fall.
Nevertheless, The Economist, a longtime supporter of democracy, argues in its latest issue that she should resign, ignoring the rules of democracy, even though it admits impeachment would be wrong and even though her only “crime” is to have mishandled the economy.
Both she and her widely loved predecessor, Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the charismatic, working class union leader, lived in cloud-cuckoo-land, convinced the commodity boom in the world’s ninth largest economy would continue forever. Many observers knew the Chinese miracle would come to an end eventually. Many informed people knew an economy based on soya, beans, meat, fruit and metal and forestry exports−much of which was sold to China−was a precarious one. Both Silva and Rousseff ignored the warning signs.
This was a particular Brazilian problem. Other Latin American countries also suffered from the fast fall in the commodities’ markets, but none other than Brazil have had negative growth (except for Venezuela, a special case). Look at Peru, Chile, Nicaragua, and Mexico−four countries that are still doing well.
Ironically, the earlier success of the Silva and Rousseff governments is that, because of fast economic growth, they have created a much larger middle class who now have middle class concerns. They see their hard-won new standards of living being fast eroded. Thus, they are more susceptible to supporting the legal maneuverings now besetting the president.
For many voters, it is the accusations against Silva that are most concerning. He has been accused of owning an expensive beachfront property and another countryside house. He says they are not his and that they belong to a construction company. His main home remains in a working class neighborhood in São Paulo. If we are sensible about the issue, an ex-president on a good pension, with much saved up legitimately from the time he was in office, having a sea-front apartment is no great deal. The president’s salary, pension, and benefits are quite high. Property prices outside São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are low.
Let’s go back to how Silva first won election. After centuries of favoring the middle and upper classes in a country that had one of the worst distributions of income in the world, the Workers’ Party turned the tables. Middle class people with a conscience joined the working class and the rural peasantry in voting for its presidential candidate four times.
Whatever Silva’s and Rousseff’s mistakes were in ignoring warning signs that the commodity boom could not last, they wanted to make hay while the sun shone for the poor−those who had missed out during the last 100 years of good economic growth.
They did, and with great success, as an earlier issue of the now critical Economist records.
The greatest steps forward were made by Silva−in particular with his pioneering Bolsa Familia, in which a female family member received a monthly cash hand-out as long as children went to school and were taken to a health clinic regularly. This lifted 36 million people out of poverty. The World Bank suggests that Brazil cut “chronic poverty” by three-quarters from 2004 to 2012 to just 1.6 percent of the population. The figure is now certainly lower. The income of the poorest 10 percent has more than doubled.
In the three years after Rousseff came to office in 2010, the government has installed 670,000 water tanks for the poor across the country. She has also increased subsidized housing and vocational training. She has expanded Bolsa Familia.
All this progress could come to an end if Rousseff falls on her sword. She must not.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil]