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'Regime Change' Alone Won't Fix Brazil

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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The simplest reading of the protests that swept Brazil on Sunday is that Latin America's largest nation is clamoring for regime change. 

The 3 million or more people who filled the streets and parks of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and dozens of other Brazilian cities turned out to say they're fed up with the relentless corruption scandal that has laid low the economy and practically paralyzed policy making over the past two years. They say President Dilma Rousseff and her friends must go.

But as satisfying as that may sound to Rousseff's enemies, it's the wrong message. And any political free-riders looking to parlay the public fury into partisan gains should think twice, or risk ending up as tomorrow's target.

The same crowds that waved inflatable dolls of Rousseff and her political mentor, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in prison stripes, also made it clear they weren't shilling for Rousseff's rivals. Two senior members of the leading opposition group, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party -- including former presidential hopeful Aecio Neves -- were insulted by the crowds in Sao Paulo.

That's no sop to Rousseff. It's hard to escape the conclusion that her presidency has been a debacle. Since she was first elected in 2010, the country's economy has gone from juggernaut to junk status, and most economists see no reprieve before 2018.

On her watch, a money-changing caper run from a gas station in Brasilia erupted into the Car Wash scandal, the country's biggest corruption scheme on record, which has left the state oil company Petrobras looted and tainted some of Brazil's most powerful moguls and public officials. (The stain recently spread to Lula, who is suspected of having received benefits from contractors involved in the Car Wash scheme. On Monday, the Brazilian press was buzzing with unconfirmed reports that he had agreed to take a cabinet post in Rousseff's government, a job that would shield him from trial in a common court.)

Such a dismal record has raised the clamor for Rousseff's ouster, and will embolden the drive in Congress to impeach her. At the same time, the electoral court is weighing evidence -- bolstered by the arrest of Rousseff's former campaign manager -- that she financed her reelection campaign with dirty money, a crime that could lead the court to annul her reelection and call for new ones within 90 days.

The crisis has even fueled talk that leading lawmakers might agree to reduce Rousseff's authority and vote in a prime-minister-like caretaker to finish her term, although Brazilian voters have twice rejected adopting a parliamentary system. "Decisions are getting made week by week," said Michael Mohallem, from the Getulio Vargas Foundation law school in Rio de Janeiro. "We are living by the heat of the moment."

And yet with key suspects in the Petrobras scandal copping plea bargains to avoid jail or lighten their punishment -- all eyes are on construction mogul Marcelo Odebrecht, recently sentenced to 19 years in prison for paying bribes for government contracts -- the chances are rising that one of these scenarios will play out. The largest party in Rousseff's friable ruling bloc, the Brazilian Democratic Movement, is threatening to walk out, and the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group recently raised the odds of Rousseff failing to finish her term from 40 percent to 65 percent.

However, while Rousseff's departure could help lift the pall of uncertainty darkening Brazil, it will not magically make the country solvent and creditworthy again. Nor would it suddenly imbue the 28 parties in Congress, practiced in holding government to ransom for pork and patronage jobs, with civic spirit. Such entrenched interests have little appetite for the fiscal parsimony, much less the structural reforms that Brazil needs to draw more investment and right the economy.

So what happens if Rousseff departs? As her job hangs in the balance, so too do those of who have been accused of benefiting from the Petrobras corruption scheme. Among those officials on the hook are the next three in line to succeed Rousseff: Vice President Michel Temer, who will fall with Rousseff if the court rules their campaign was illegally financed; House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, facing trail for bribe-taking; and Senate President Renan Calheiros, suspected of money laundering, accepting bribes and tax evasion.

The good news is that Brazilians are no longer willing to put up with crooked politicians' assault on the public coffers. But daunting questions remain about who will shepherd the young democracy through its worst political crisis since 1992, and how the country can hold the remaining politicians to account. That's a problem regime change won't solve.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net