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A 'coup' who's who: Words matter in Brazil's impeachment drama

Dilma Rousseff's future is at stake in an impeachment process that is hobbling Brazil's economy. The President's critics call it a legitimate way to hold her accountable; her allies say it's an act of desperate self-preservation by a rival facing corruption charges of his own. But a growing number of jurists, scholars and protesters call it something else: A coup by stealth, Stephanie Nolen writes

Demonstrators hold posters with the images of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, left, and Lower House Speaker Eduardo Cunha as they take part in a protest against the impeachment proceedings against Ms. Rousseff in Sao Paulo on Dec. 16, 2015. The posters read

Demonstrators hold posters with the images of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, left, and Lower House Speaker Eduardo Cunha as they take part in a protest against the impeachment proceedings against Ms. Rousseff in Sao Paulo on Dec. 16, 2015. The posters read “In defence of Democracy, Dilma, stay” and “Out Cunha, Coup.”

NACHO DOCE/REUTERS

When protesters took to the streets of Brazil's big cities this week in support of President Dilma Rousseff, many of them wore T-shirts that read, "There won't be a coup."

The c-word (or, really, g-word – a coup is golpe in Portuguese) has been ubiquitous in the past two weeks, ever since the Speaker of Brazil's lower house of Congress kicked off impeachment proceedings against Ms. Rousseff.

The President and her supporters say a constitutionally enshrined mechanism of redress is being wantonly misused by the right-wing opposition to oust her and subvert democracy – hence a "coup."

Members of labour unions protest in Sao Paulo on Dec. 16, 2015.

Members of labour unions protest in Sao Paulo on Dec. 16, 2015.

MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The impeachment case is based on the allegation that Ms. Rousseff juggled public funds in her first term to cover budget shortfalls, including the bill for the social programs on the strength of which she was re-elected in 2014.

Waiting in the wings is a host of other accusations, including that she allegedly financed her re-election with tainted cash tied to mammoth corruption at the state oil firm, Petrobras.

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Ms. Rousseff denies both allegations. But her popularity rating has plummeted to 9 per cent.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff gestures during a meeting with social movements at Planalto Palace in Brasilia on Dec. 17, 2015.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff gestures during a meeting with social movements at Planalto Palace in Brasilia on Dec. 17, 2015.

UESLEI MARCELINO/REUTERS

Meanwhile, her chief accuser, Speaker Eduardo Cunha, is a one-time political ally now facing massive corruption charges of his own – police raided his home on Tuesday and had to bring in a special vehicle to accommodate all the documents they carted off. Prosecutors allege that he has secreted more than $5-million (U.S.) in kickbacks in a Swiss bank account. He denies the charges.

Eduardo Cunha leaves the official residence on his way to the Congress in Brasilia on Dec. 17, 2015.

Eduardo Cunha leaves the official residence on his way to the Congress in Brasilia on Dec. 17, 2015.

EVARISTO SA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The President's allies say the impeachment process is a piece of naked brinkmanship by Mr. Cunha aimed at saving his skin, and a move by his Brazilian Democracy Movement Party (PMDB) to seize power (a PMDB vice-president would take over in the event Ms. Rousseff were ousted) and shut down further corruption investigations.

On Wednesday night, the federal prosecutor requested that Mr. Cunha step down, saying he has "used his position in his own illicit interest, to prevent the investigations … into his criminal conduct." Mr. Cunha says he is going nowhere.

On Thursday evening, the Supreme Court ruled that the impeachment process that Mr. Cunha has advanced today violated the constitutionally-inscribed process, and said it must be redone. The decision was a significant victory for Ms. Rousseff and tipped the balance of power slightly back toward her.

The ongoing political upheaval is shredding Brazil's economy. Fitch Ratings downgraded the country's credit rating to junk on Wednesday, the second ratings agency to do so of late. A government jobs report said the country would shed two million jobs next year, adding to the 1.5 million people who joined the ranks of the unemployed this year. The Central Bank's market research predicts that the economy will contract by 2.7 per cent in 2016; Goldman Sachs said in a report this week that Brazil, not long ago the darling of the emerging markets, is careening into an outright depression.

Impeachment is laid out in Brazil's constitution as a mechanism to remove a president who commits grave crimes, and was used once before in Brazil's modern democratic history when nearly the entire nation mobilized against president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992.

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Ms. Rousseff and members of her Workers' Party, known by its Portuguese acronym PT, argue that the mechanism is being abused, in this case by the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which is perceived to draw its political strength from rich, white denizens of Sao Paulo, in order to oust a left-wing government to which it narrowly lost the 2014 election.

A demonstrator wears stickers on his body at protests in Sao Paulo on Dec. 16, 2015. The banner reads, “We have defeated Sao Paulo's State Governor Geraldo Alckmin, now is Cunha.”

A demonstrator wears stickers on his body at protests in
Sao Paulo on Dec. 16, 2015. The banner reads, “We have defeated [Sao
Paulo’s State Governor Geraldo] Alckmin, now it is Cunha’s turn.”

NACHO DOCE/REUTERS

"It's an attempted coup … an attempt to get [another] election by the PSDB because they can't accept the results of the last one," said Wadih Damous, a PT member of Congress. "There are sectors of the elite that can't accept that the government is still headed by the PT, or the advances in citizenship for the poor that happened in the last 13 years, under the PT."

And they are dressing it up in fancy legal terminology to misguide less-educated sectors of society, he said: "The fact that impeachment is described in the constitution doesn't mean this is not an attempt at a coup. We are living through something similar to what happened in 1964 [the year of the last military coup], where there was an alliance of the conservative sectors of society. The only thing that has changed is the method: It's not happening through the military forces now. The coup is called impeachment now."

But Nilson Leitao, the PSDB's deputy leader in the lower house, insists that impeachment is a legitimate and justified response to the President's financial abuses. "The PT are always accusing people of staging a coup, whether they're in government or not," he said. "The person who would take office [in the event of an impeachment] is the Vice-President they themselves chose."

Ms. Rousseff appointed a senior politician from the PMDB as her deputy in a bid to cement the coalition she needed to form a government.

"The best thing for Brazil would be new elections so that it doesn't even look like a coup," Mr. Leitao added. "The fact that she [Ms. Rousseff] was elected by three or four percentage points doesn't give her the right to bankrupt the country."

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Mr. Damous's rhetoric is perhaps predictable from a PT member, but a number of legal experts surveyed by The Globe and Mail, none of them aligned with the PT, expressed similar concerns.

Vania Aieta, a specialist in electoral law with the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said the bandying about of the word "coup" to describe the current situation is not acceptable – that there is a fundamental difference between legal instruments and taking power by force – but she does believe impeachment is being misused.

"People are, essentially, using the constitutional instrument of impeachment to justify [another election]," she said. "There is one sector of society that is dissatisfied with the head of executive power and with the government, in terms of policy and the way of managing the economy, and they see this instrument of impeachment as a way to change the choice people have made. … This is just losers, weeping."

Members of labour unions hold a demonstration during the National Day of Mobilization against the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and budget cuts proposed by the government in Brasilia on Dec. 16, 2015.

Members of labour unions hold a demonstration during the National Day of Mobilization against the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and budget cuts proposed by the government in Brasilia on Dec. 16, 2015.

ANDRESSA ANHOLETE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

After extensive study of the various allegations against the President, she has concluded that none will stand based on its content: "In terms of merit, of content, there isn't any possibility of a glimpse of the impeachment."

Nevertheless, the rhetorical war under way is damaging, she said. "This [the impeachment] is a very dangerous precedent in terms of political instability."

Anibal Perez-Linan, an Argentine political scientist now teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Presidential Impeachment and the new Political Instability in Latin America, said traditional military coups are a non-starter these days, but impeachment has to some degree replaced them. "What has happened in the past two decades is that disputes between political elites, between executives and Congress, are solved through the mechanism of impeachment," he said.

The mechanism has been misused – as in Paraguay in 2012, with the impeachment of president Fernando Lugo, which regional bodies outright declared a coup. But impeachment is also being understood elsewhere as the equivalent of a vote of no confidence in a parliamentary system, and that is closer to the case in Brazil, Prof. Perez-Linan said.

And that makes the coup talk a mistake, he said: "If you cannot distinguish between an act in Congress that may not be legal and tanks in the streets, then people start thinking everything is the same and it doesn't matter if we solve problems with violence or other ways. Claiming it is a coup creates confusion, and democratic politicians should never create that confusion."

Prof. Aieta concurred: Ms. Rousseff must try to muster the support in Congress to fight impeachment. "If they can't build that, then excuse yourself and get out."

Through the early part of this crisis, it seemed that Brazil's business community, which has no love for Ms. Rousseff, nevertheless hoped to see the political scandal die down so that she could pass austerity legislation and try to resuscitate the economy.

But Mr. Leitao pointed out that when the impeachment process was formally opened, the stock market had one of its biggest gains in months and the badly depreciated real gained strength as well. "The presence of Dilma in the [presidential] chair brings instability to the country and impoverishes the working class," he said.

With a report from Manuela Andreoni


THE SIDESHOWS IN BRAZIL'S CIRCUS

The political drama in Brazil just keeps coming. In recent days:


The wine in the face

Katia Abreu, the powerful Minister of Agriculture and close ally of the president, was at a year-end cocktail gathering for her party when a conversation she was having with friends was interrupted by senator Jose Serra, who told her, using a less than salubrious adjective, that he had heard she "gets around." Ms. Abreu tossed her glass of wine in his face, and, allegedly, told Mr. Serra, a serial campaigner for president, that he would never, ever get the job. Later, on Twitter, she called his remark "disrespectful, arrogant and sexist."

( Translation: "It was unfortunate, disrespectful, arrogant and sexist.")


"Temer's letter"

Vice-President Michel Temer sent President Dilma Rousseff a letter saying she shut him out of governing and he could sense she had never and would never trust him or his party. Mr. Temer, who is from a supposedly allied party, has been making a naked bid for her job in recent days. The tone of the letter was so cringe-inducing that Brazilians immediately turned it into a caustic meme called Temer's Letter, with versions imagining him recriminating the president for leaving him out of barbecues, slumber parties and Uno games at the presidential palace.

( Translation: "You didn't invite me to take a selfie with the head of Facebeook and it really hurt my feelings.")


'No, you're a banana!"

The Congress sessions debating the impeachment have been explosive. Deputies supporting the president smashed up a series of ballot boxes to try to stop a vote. There was fistfight between members in a debate over whether to investigate speaker Eduardo Cunha at the Ethics Council. And another session degenerated into elected representatives shrieking "You're a banana! No, you're a banana!" – a Brazilian synonym for idiot – at each other across the floor. Congress has been so sordid, of late, in fact, that the national daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo published a roundup of horrifying scenes from other assemblies around the world – including India, Taiwan and Ukraine.

Watch the fistfight in Brazil’s congress

1:05



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Brazil’s election: The incredible backstories of Rousseff and her rival

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