Celebrating impeachment vote.

Photographer: Rahel Patrasso/Xinhua via Getty Images

Brazil Is Partying While It Can

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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There were paeans to flag, country, an interstate highway and "my granddaughter's birthday." One exalted lawmaker read from the Bible, and another praised a former military torturer. My favorite was the junior representative from the northern Brazilian state of Para, who fired a confetti gun into the congressional chambers in Brasilia before casting his vote for impeachment.

Judging by the political theater in the nation's capital on Sunday and the huge street parties that followed across the country, Brazil might have been reborn when a crushing 71 percent of the lower house of congress voted to support a motion to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office.

What lies ahead promises to be a lot messier. In fact, the euphoria over Rousseff's tumble from grace took me straight back to 2003, the year her predecessor was starting office. It was January, and tens of thousands of ecstatic well-wishers poured into Brasilia, dozens of them diving into the reflecting pools on the capital mall, to hail the inauguration of Workers' Party legend Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Thirteen years on, Lula is now on the defensive, battling suspicions that he benefited from a massive graft and kickback scheme at the state oil company Petrobras, Brazil's biggest corruption scandal on record, which began on his watch. And Rousseff, Lula's successor and political mentee, stands accused of hiding huge budget shortfalls with illegal accounting tricks. For the second time in a little over a generation, and just 31 years after Brazil returned to democracy, a freely elected leader is poised to be removed from office. 

So cue the caveats and trepidation as the push to oust Rousseff moves to the Senate, which could decide to remove her, pending trial, by mid May. But the end of Rousseff's government does not have to be another Brazilian disaster. It could well spell a renewal. Here's the upside of Brazil's lowest moment in decades: "It's like when the computer freezes up," said Alberto Ramos, Latin American analyst at Goldman Sachs. "Sometimes it's best to reboot."

First, Brazil's democratic institutions are in good shape. For all the fevered talk by Rousseff loyalists of a coup d'etat, which the president reiterated in a press conference Monday, there's no basis to suggest the congressional vote of no confidence was the work of an anti-democratic conspiracy. Unless, that is, the conspirators include the federal auditing court, which flagged the fiscal trickery for which Rousseff is now answering in Congress; the Supreme Court, which has upheld the impeachment process against multiple challenges by government lawyers; and now 71 percent of the lower chamber of congress where, until recently, Rousseff's governing coalition boasted a working majority.

If Rousseff is thrown out, her vice president, Michel Temer, would take office with a tremendous lift. Granted, not everyone in congress who voted for impeachment is likely to fall in line behind Temer, whom key prosecution witnesses have accused of benefiting from illegal ethanol purchases. And he may yet run afoul of the country's electoral court, which is weighing allegations that his and Rousseff's 2014 re-election campaign was financed by dirty money from the Petrobras scandal, proof of which could remove him from office, as well.

For now, though, Temer is this politically gridlocked country's best shot at a fresh start. A lifelong member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), a one-size-fits-all party that's opportunistically taken part in every government since the return of democracy in 1985, the 75-year-old politician is a seasoned negotiator. He's spent decades whipping up legislative votes and conciliating coalition demands and appetites for pork and patronage.

"Brazil's political system is all about building consensus," Carlos Pereira, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, told me. "Rousseff wanted to impose a vision even though her party was never a majority. The PMDB lives for negotiating, and negotiating is what Brazil needs at the moment."

Temer is enough of an operator to know what he doesn't know, and Machiavellian enough to reach out to some of Rousseff's most fierce adversaries to draw up a shadow government even as hers floundered.

Such ecumenicalism also was behind the PMDB's new party plank, A Bridge to the Future, announced last year as Rousseff's fortunes were slipping. Drafted by leading economists, it calls for imposing fiscal discipline on government by curbing excess spending and trimming bloated social programs. It also calls for cutting the social security deficit by raising the retirement age for pensioners, and easing labor laws to allow workers and employers to negotiate wages and hours.

Malleability alone won't mend Brazil's badly polarized society any more than it will lift the economy from recession and win back the country's investment grade rating. That would be a tough assignment for the most skilled statesman, and no one has ever called Temer that.

And as welcome as a new spirit of dialogue may be in embattled Brasilia, Temer will still have to deal with the same old legislature, where more than one in 10 of the 367 lawmakers who voted for impeachment on Sunday also face criminal charges. That's something conciliation or confetti can't fix.

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:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net