When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff walked down the ramp at the presidential palace in Brasilia the other day, she might have been a national hero. â€œThere will be struggle, there will be resistance,â€ a gruff-voiced leader of the homeless workersâ€™ movement announced, turning the announcement of a new federal housing initiative into a political rally. â€œThis bogus coup attempt will not work.â€
That was on Wednesday last, but to judge by mood and the political script, it could have been 1970 again. Back then, the military ran Brazil and left-wing dissidents rose in dissent â€” among them, a bespectacled Marxist rebel who went by the nom de guerre Estela before she entered politics and became the countryâ€™s 36th president.
Today, Rousseff is fighting for her job as political allies abandon her governing coalition and political foes push to unseat her through impeachment, voiding her election or urging her to resign. To the besieged leader, such maneuvers are barely disguised attempts at a coup dâ€™etat, fueled by political intolerance bordering on â€œNazism,â€ she told a gathering of sympathetic artists and intellectuals on Thursday.
In fact, this is Brazilian democracy at work. Forty-five years after Comrade Estela was arrested and tortured by the dictatorship, Brazil is another country. It boasts a vibrant, albeit flawed, democracy in which dissenters with all manner of grievances may march without fear of being jailed. And except for a few cranky hard-liners, who recently hailed the 52nd anniversary of the militaryâ€™s power grab, the armed forces have displayed no interest in running the country again.
â€œI feel ashamed,â€ Colonel Adilson Moreira reportedly wrote in an e-mail to fellow officers after announcing he was leaving his post as commander of Rousseffâ€™s national public security force. â€œOur federal administration is no longer interested in the countryâ€™s well-being, but in maintaining power at all costs.â€
What Rousseff is facing is not a cabal plotting a putsch, but political whiplash, brought on mainly by economic mismanagement and partisan hauteur. It was largely on her watch that government allies turned the state-run oil company Petrobras into a cash machine for election campaigns and personal gain. The impeachment writ weighing against her is a democratic safeguard written into the 1988 constitution, a document drafted to cleanse the country of dictatorial ways. Her ruling Workers Party knows the drill. Its lawmakers have petitioned 50 times to impeach three presidents in the last quarter century, the political columnist Jose Casado noted recently in the newspaper O Globo.
Try as Dilma might to turn impeachment into sedition and the presidential palace into a safe house, Brazilian democracy is facing a much larger challenge: How to make the country governable again and rescue a failing economy?
Following the constitution â€” too often a disposable document in Latin America â€” is a start, but only that. Brazilâ€™s political class needs a thorough shaking out, and here is where all sides in the impeachment quarrel should drop their fists and rethink the impasse that has brought the country nearly to a halt.
Yet this week offered a glimpse of how hard that will be. Rousseffâ€™s main coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, formally split from her government, making her eventual fall even more likely. The Eurasia Group recently downgraded Rousseffâ€™s likelihood of finishing her second term to 25 percent. To fill vacated cabinet posts, Rousseff has reached out to a number of smaller parties, better known for their appetites for patronage than for their political acumen. One of her new best friends is the Progressive Party, suspected of taking $100 million in bribes in the Petrobras scandal, and five of whose sitting federal lawmakers were formally accused of corruption this week.
Brazilâ€™s breakaway politicians donâ€™t inspire much confidence, starting with the three men in line to succeed Rousseff, all of whom hail from the PMDB and are under suspicion of having benefitted from the Petrobras corruption scheme. Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso is not impressed: â€œMy God in heaven, this is our alternative to rule?â€ he was overheard telling university students at a lecture in Brasilia on Thursday.
Carlos Pereira, a political scientist with a top Brazilian university, the Getulio Vargas Foundation, is more optimistic. â€œBrazilâ€™s crisis could help force a new government to act by imposing reforms that the current administration has been too weak to enact,â€ he told me. â€œThis has got to be a government of national salvation.â€
Of course, thatâ€™s something that not even the constitution can provide.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro. Previously, he reported on Latin America for Newsweek and was a frequent contributor to The Economist, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy