In a six-hour roll call vote night of April 17th, 367 of the 513 legislators in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of impeaching President Dilma Rousseff for using government accounts to hide the true size of the country’s budget deficit. It was a sordid spectacle of political grandstanding and theater, as legislators voted for their families, God, and a host of other reasons totally unrelated to upholding the Brazilian Constitution. Tiririca, a professional-clown-turned-legislator, trended on Twitter in part for the way his serious and concise speech contrasted with the histrionics from other legislators: a serious clown in a political circus.
Dilma is hugely unpopular in Brazil right now, and news coverage of the impeachment proceedings inevitably mention that she is being persecuted for a seemingly minor transgression in comparison to the kickback and bribery accusations that dog a number of other Brazilian politicians, including the vice president and the president of the Chamber of Deputies.
The politicized nature of the process is not lost on observers. After meeting with the beleaguered president over the weekend, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro classified the proceedings against her as a purely political process. The Brazilian Worker’s Party and Dilma have gone a step farther and continue to call the process a coup d’état, while some pundits and scholars have rejected the removal process as undemocratic or argued that it is bad for democracy, including op-eds from such august institutions as The Guardian.
This is overblown. Presidential impeachment is an inherently political process. It has been since its inception, and it undoubtedly is in Brazil right now. Yet contrary to what some politicians and analysts have said, a politicized impeachment is not a coup d’état—an unconstitutional takeover of government (usually by the armed forces) that implies a least a temporary break with democracy—nor does it necessarily undermine the foundations of the democratic state.
In fact, by providing a constitutional exit for unpopular executives, it is impeachment that may ultimately preserve Brazilian democracy.
Impeachment is Often Used as a Political Tool
The concept of impeachment is old. The English “Good Parliament” used this figure to convict William Latimer, the 4th Baron Latimer, on charges of corruption and oppression in 1376. In the U.S., framers enshrined the impeachment process in Article 2, Section IV of U.S. Constitution, establishing that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In Latin America, the Mexican Congress declared President Vicente Guerrero incapable of ruling after Vice President Anastasio Bustamente led a rebellion against him in late 1829. And all constitutions except those in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua have adopted impeachment as a means to ensure executive accountability. (The Venezuelan Constitution does not provide for impeachment, though it does allow for recall elections.)
In an ideal world, legislators would only pursue presidential impeachment if there were sufficient proof of a “high crime,” and would refrain from doing so if accusations were highly partisan or political in nature. However, that’s easier said than done; politicians exist in the mix of politics, especially in the midst of a presidential crisis.
In reality, presidential impeachment has always been a political tool at least since Congress impeached Andrew Johnson in 1868 in the pitched battle between Democrats and Republicans after the American Civil War and continues to be to this day, as the 24-hour “lightning impeachment” of Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, calls to impeach Barack Obama for the Affordable Care Act, and now the vote against Dilma attest.
Impeachments are rarely the cut-and-dried legal procedure many like to imagine. In his seminal book on presidential removal, Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (2007) shows that successful impeachments in Latin America follow a causal chain: political scandal involving the executive, popular protest that legitimizes legislative action, military reticence to intervene, and then the dissolution of the chief executive’s congressional support that allows the impeachment measure to pass. Absent from this theory is the presence of any true “high crime or misdemeanor” on the part of the president.
So why is impeachment a good even healthy thing?
Impeachment and related presidential removal mechanisms are bad for presidents, but good for accountability and democratic stability. Voters and legislators can exercise oversight of the chief executive, while the democratic regime is at no risk of falling.
As Daniel Chasquetti astutely notes in Uruguay, the deeper issue may simply be an old debate that merits revisiting: that of presidentialism versus parliamentarism. Political scientists Leiv Marsteintredet and Einar Berntzen have argued that impeachment and similar politicized presidential removals represent the flexibiliation or “parliamentarization” of presidential politics. Furthermore, they maintain that this is a healthy development that helps democracies overcome the numerous “perils of presidentialism,” such as the rigidity of a fixed term and a lack of institutional responsiveness. In other words, impeachment is healthy because it is the presidential equivalent of a parliamentary vote of no confidence that reflects measures of both horizontal and vertical accountability.
Even highly politicized processes like Brazil’s are an improvement over the coup-mongering politics of old. This is because the alternative to an impeachment is not simply the status quo of when that president was originally elected, but legislative gridlock and a lack of governability, and perhaps even more extreme attempts at removal. In an academic paper under review, Pérez-Liñán and I argue that in a context of political polarization and radicalization, a government that staves off impeachment actually increases the likelihood of a military coup. Nor does impeachment seem to have lasting deleterious effects: David Samuels and Kathryn Hochstetler say that while presidential challenges and falls are indeed crises, their measurable effects are “limited and ephemeral.” In this sense, impeachment serves as an escape valve for democracy that allows presidents to fall and democracy to endure.
To wit: Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutiérrez survived an impeachment attempt in November 2004 by forming an electoral alliance with the populist PRE and PRIAN, ensuring their legislative votes in exchange for judicial seats and other forms of political patronage goods. The ineffective and politicized judiciary further hindered a weak government that was unable to legislate, until opposition congressmen mustered enough votes in April 2005 to remove Gutiérrez for “abandonment of office” (he was in the presidential palace at the time of the vote). Ecuadorian democracy would probably have benefitted from Gutiérrez leaving office in November 2004—and it might have suffered far worse, in the form of a coup, had the National Congress not removed him that next April on those trumped up charges.
By contrast, in 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya attempted to push forward a referendum on a constituent assembly to change the constitution and allow unlimited presidential re-election. However, that same constitution did not set forth any clear procedures for removing or prosecuting a sitting president, and the armed forces intervened in a coup d’état.
Dilma’s seemingly imminent removal in Brazil may be good for her party and the country. Would it really be better for Brazilian democracy or governance to keep her? She entered office in 2015 with a low mandate, winning a mere 41.59 percent of the popular vote in the first round of the election, and leads a polarized country facing economic crisis and the world’s largest public corruption scandal. Further, were she to survive impeachment in the Senate, Dilma would still be hobbled by tepid legislative support hampering governance and curtailing the governing party’s ability to legislate. Her Workers’ Party controls 60 of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 11 of 81 in the Federal Senate, and coalition building would likely put her in what José Antonio Cheibub calls a “deadlock situation”: with the support of one-third to one-half of Congress, facing an uncompromising opposition, an urgent economic situation, and continued corruption investigations. Sacrificing her government is a far better alternative to sacrificing Brazil’s economic recovery or its democracy.
Instead, her departure will saddle a poor successor—Michel Temer, Eduardo Cunha, or someone else—with the country’s problems and put her predecessor Lula da Silva in an enviable place as he decides whether or not to run for president again in 2018. Best of all, the military stays in the barracks and the regime bends but does not break.
Yes, the six-hour roll-call vote in the Chamber was a circus, and yes, the charges against Dilma are small peanuts compared to the corruption charges others are facing. Yet no matter the level of politicization (and political grandstanding) surrounding the impeachment proceedings, legislators are following the constitution and democracy endures. In the midst of all of Brazil’s problems, this is something to be celebrated.
John Polga-Hecimovich is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the College of William & Mary, and will join the Political Science faculty at the U.S. Naval Academy as an Assistant Professor in fall 2016. He research focuses on bureaucratic politics, legislative-executive relations, and institutions in Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter at: @jpolga.