Lessons in politics and political science

Buenos Aires Herald. 4 de septiembre de 2016.

Even if not a coup, the removal of Rousseff raise questions in and outside Brazil

The removal of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and the subsequent national and international reactions have provided fodder for some analysts to question at least five components of a hard-won scholarly (and political) consensus in the region.

The first is a conceptual point. What constitutes an illegal coup against a democratic government? Most analysts would likely agree in the abstract that an impeachment process carried out legally within a constitutional and democratic regime is not a coup. Not being a coup is a very low bar. It does not mean the decision to remove Rousseff for violation of fiscal and public accounting laws and for mismanaging the budget is a shining example of perfect justice and democratic deliberation, far from it. Yet because Rousseff was ousted while obviously tainted opponents remained in power, and because this debate in the region is coloured by the Cold War history of movements to topple reformist or left-leaning governments, many of Rousseff’s supporters are calling the impeachment process a coup.

Second, the Brazilian crisis has, sadly, in some (thankfully limited) quarters renewed debate about the possibilities of a democratic left, or right, as some of Roussef’s defenders say her opponents are intrinsically undemocratic, and a few of the Workers’ Party’s detractors say the same. The good thing about democracy is that there are always new elections ahead, which means the PT can recover, and right-leaning critics have not won permanently. If the government of Michel Temer is unable to meet the expectations that it can carry out the very difficult task of turning the economy around, Rousseff’s PT could once again have an electoral advantage.

A third debate that has been revived is about the reform of the hemisphere’s model of political institutions, particularly presidentialism. One important lesson scholars took from constitutional crises in the past is that presidentialist systems seem to be particularly prone to democratic instability, as divided political legitimacy between the executive and Congress can produce a frustrating stalemate. Brazil even had a plebiscite about whether to switch to a parliamentary system in 1993. The public voted to keep its presidentialist system. The ghost of political sociologist Juan Linz, whose investigations famously implied that several Latin American countries might benefit from switching to parliamentarism, may be turning in his grave. Given public frustration with the performance of Rousseff’s government, Brazil might have been better off if its legislature could have held a no-confidence vote. Impeachment proceedings are a poor substitute.

The fourth point is about international relations. How do and how should other countries react to political crises? Regionally, the reaction to the Brazil case seems to line up along political fault lines, as often was the case during the Cold War. Only “Bolivarian” countries (including Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela) are calling the impeachment of Rousseff a “coup.” Others are recognizing the removal as an institutionally legitimate change, even if for some it is clearly a regrettable one. This cleavage is complicating the ability of regional organizations to react. However, extra-regionally, and in the world of big power politics, the world is already moving on. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping has already met with and expressed confidence in President Temer.

A fifth and final revived debate is about the role of scholars and scholarship. The political situation in Brazil has produced rifts in scholarly associations. One of these led to the resignation of several members of the (US-based, but international) Brazilian Studies Association earlier this year in protest against the use of the organization for partisan ends (i.e., a resolution in favour of Rousseff).

There are unfortunate aspects to the Brazilian crisis, and more rough politital times are likely still ahead for the country. However, the scholar can always resort to taking the long view, from which there is also reason for optimism. Brazilians know that all their political parties have succumbed to the temptations of corruption. They also know that a new generation of committed reformers in the court system, civil society and the media wants to change this, and they are showing that high-ranking politicians and important business leaders do not enjoy impunity. No-one is afraid the military will intervene. Perhaps a political reform arising from the current crisis will lead to improvements in the political system.