Brazil’s Turmoil Renders Government Inoperable

Brazil is facing a serious outbreak of the Zika virus, which causes microcephaly when the disease infects a pregnant woman (among other nasty effects). The nation is also facing its longest economic downturn since the Great Depression. In four months, it will have the added security worries of the Summer Olympics. If there was ever a time Brazil needed a competent and effective government this is it. Sadly, it has something that can barely be called a government.

The whole mess begins with a long-standing investigation into kickbacks to politicians from Petrobras, the national oil company. Dozens have been implicated, and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as “Lula” throughout the region) was brought in for questioning. Shortly after that, the current president and his hand-picked successor Dilma Rousseff appointed him her chief of staff, which provides him with some immunity from investigation. This appointment has been challenged in the Supreme Court, which is due to rule today on its validity.

As a result of these shenanigans, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the largest party in the national legislature, has withdrawn from the ruling coalition. The party is concentrating on “returning to its origins, finding its traditions and taking a position in favor of Brazil and the Brazilian people,” said the group’s second-in-command, Senator Romero Juca. That, of course, implies that it has been taking positions against Brazil and its people, and it further suggests anyone who remains in the coalition is still against Brazilians and their nation.

Impeachment of President Rousseff is certainly in the cards. There has been talk for some time about it, but the BDMP’s withdrawal from the coalition may seal the deal. The key factor that will weigh most heavily against her is the fact that she was chairwoman of Petrobras during the period when the alleged kickbacks were paid.

If articles of impeachment are moved, it will be in large part due to Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha who has pushed for them. CNN notes, “But Cunha himself is under scrutiny by the Ethics Committee for allegedly failing to disclose the existence of offshore bank accounts to the Brazilian internal revenue service. If found guilty, he’ll likely lose his post.”

Under the Brazilian system, impeachment proceedings would effectively freeze Rousseff’s government for 180 days while she fights her case. During that period, the vice president would head a caretaker government. Micher Temer is the Vice President of Brazil, and he is also head of the BDMP. So the question is will he resign now that his party is out of the coalition? Or will he stay on to be caretaker and possibly split his party by not leaving?

There isn’t a good way out of this for Brazil. So long as the investigation into Petrobras goes on, President Rousseff will operate under a cloud. If ex-President Lula is denied the position of chief of staff, the investigation can continue but it calls into question whether certain factions are interfering in the operation of the executive, denying the president her choice of appointees. If the court affirms his right to the job, the investigation will slow to a halt, making him less effective than he might otherwise be. Impeachment and a new president could offer a way forward, but it would take the better part of a year to get a new government in place and functioning. Brazil doesn’t have that kind of time.

The lesson is that it doesn’t much matter whether a nation has a small government or a big one. What matters is whether it is effective. Brazil is showing the world the consequences of having a government that does not work.