Supporters of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, whom the Chamber of Deputies voted to impeach Sunday night, have been calling the proceedings a “coup.” Héctor Perla suggested here on Saturday that they constitute a “soft coup.” Is Sunday’s vote actually a coup?
The short answer: No.
The long answer: No, but it’s not exactly democratic either.
Let’s discuss what a coup (also known as a coup d’état) is. There are many definitions of coups out there. All have a few elements. (1) Coups seize executive power. (2) They are led by a small group of military officers or occasionally other social elites. (3) They use unconstitutional or “extralegal” means outside the bounds of the existing political system.
Following a constitutional procedure is better than a military overthrow
So if we think of 367 lawmakers as a “small group,” what happened Sunday might fit the first and second components of the definition. It definitely doesn’t fit the third component: the use of unconstitutional or “extralegal” means. The impeachment case against Dilma Rousseff has proceeded through constitutional channels, following the letter if not the spirit of the law. This is why experts can explain the series of procedures that will follow over the next several months.
Emphasizing constitutional procedure is not technical quibbling. It matters a lot for understanding Brazil today. Not so long ago, Latin American military and civilian elites alike felt confident entirely sidestepping the constitution if they strongly opposed current officeholders. Fifty or 60 years ago, a military and political coalition might have unceremoniously shown a president like Rousseff — one overseeing a severe recession and at loggerheads with parliament — the exit.
Today, threat of military intervention is low, and politicians can’t simply muscle Rousseff out. They have to follow complicated, legalistic procedures with uncertain outcomes.
Yes, Rousseff’s opponents — including dominant media outlets — are trying to manipulate public opinion. This is a political weapon of the democratic era. Yes, Federal Judge Sergio Moro improperly released bugged recordings of a conversation between Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in his investigation of the Operation Car Wash scandal. Impeachment itself is still constitutional.
In the 1990s, the influential political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan explained that democracy becomes “the only game in town” when “even in the face of severe political and economic crises, the overwhelming majority of the people believe that … political change must emerge from within the parameters of democratic procedures,” and when everyone becomes “habituated” to political conflict being “resolved according to established norms.”
The fact that Rousseff’s supporters and opponents are both following the same rules is no small victory for the rule of law in Brazil.
But neither is it exactly democratic; it’s a misuse of democratic procedure
The actual improprieties named in the impeachment charges — balancing the federal budget by reducing and delaying transfers of funds to a government-owned development bank — are relatively minor. Under most conditions, they wouldn’t lead to impeachment. As legislators spoke one by one on Sunday night, though, they largely ignored the actual charges.
Perhaps the lowest point of the evening came when one legislator dedicated his pro-impeachment vote to the general who tortured Rousseff during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
Impeachment is not a popularity contest. In 1993, Brazil held an unusual constitutional referendum to decide whether to switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. If the referendum had passed, Rousseff would have been a prime minister, and Brazil’s parliament would have used a vote of no confidence to fire her Sunday. But the referendum didn’t pass, and Brazil’s president can be dismissed only for a limited number of offenses. Juan Linz famously argued that presidentialism can lead to democratic breakdown because presidents and parliaments don’t have a way to fire each other when cooperation fails. By misusing the impeachment process, Brazil’s parliament has solved this problem.
Aníbal Pérez-Liñán shows that politics often affect the way Latin American legislatures handle impeachment charges. Sometimes legislatures fail to impeach the guilty, and other times they gang up on an executive against whom there is little proof. What happened Sunday is analogous to jurors ruling against a defendant based not on the charges, but because they think she is a bad person. This does not constitute a coup, but it is a misuse of democratic procedures.
So if the actual charges are minor, why do legislators want to impeach Rousseff?
The first reason for Rousseff’s extreme unpopularity is the country’s major recession. Arguably more important, though, is the ongoing and enormous Operation Car Wash corruption scandal. Even though there is no evidence Rousseff was directly involved, many people believe she must have known what was going on. Her predecessor and mentor Lula is being investigated. Rousseff attracted wrath when she attempted to offer Lula a cabinet post, a move that would have protected him from some forms of prosecution. Many elected officials implicated in the scandal appear to be pursuing her to deflect attention from themselves.
All of this — combined with Rousseff’s poor political skills — has led the PT’s coalition of relatively small and unruly parties to fall apart. This makes her highly politically vulnerable.
Will impeaching Rousseff actually help legislators avoid scrutiny?
Latin American history provides little guide. Brazil’s President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 in a relatively contained corruption scandal. Venezuela lawmakers in 1993 and Ecuadoran lawmakers in 1997 unsuccessfully attempted to contain widespread crises by impeaching presidents.
Still, the strategy may work this time, given the number of lawmakers implicated in Operation Car Wash. Surely it is not actually possible to throw all the bums out. By focusing popular ire on the executive first, at least some corrupt legislators will likely be able to outlast the current crisis.
Amy Erica Smith is assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University and is working on a book project titled “The Culture Wars in Another America: Evangelicals, Catholics, and Brazilian Democracy.”