Politics has always been concerned primarily not with the exercise but with the transfer of power. However dominant a leader may be, however deep-rooted and robust a political dynasty, the grip on power is always subject to vicissitude and mortality and leadership is judged in the long run by how well prepared a government is for its own demise. Decades of stable rule can readily be undone by one night of bloodshed or a cynical palace coup.
Modern democracies have largely managed the transfer of power by way of mass suffrage. This is, however, as Churchill observed, only the ‘least worst’ form of government. As with other diseases to which the pursuit and maintenance of power is necessarily prone (corruption, demagogy, oppression), democracy has dealt with coups not by eliminating the need for them, but by incorporating them into the constitutional framework and hence the very fabric of the body politic. The efficacy of a political system can thus be judged by the extent to which it has succeeded or failed in this task.
Judging by recent events, with President Dilma Rousseff teetering on the brink of impeachment, the Brazilian polity has spectacularly failed in this regard. Even if we leave aside inflammatory talk of coups on the Left and irresponsible nostalgia for military rule on the extreme right, there can be no doubt—whatever one’s ideological perspective—that the Brazilian political system is in chaos and there is nothing to blame for this but the system itself.
The circumstances of the current crisis in Brazil are not unusual in a democracy, but other political systems have better ways of dealing with them. It is not uncommon for narrowly elected governments to meet with stiff opposition during times of economic hardship and eventually fall. It is worth considering how this situation would be dealt with in other democratic systems—such as those of the UK, the USA and France—before returning to Brazil.
The UK political system resembles that of Brazil at least in the extent to which the Prime Minister by default enjoys quasi-presidential powers. This makes crises within governments more destabilizing and more likely to occur than they would be in a system where there are distinct presidential and parliamentary tiers of power. However, this inherent instability is offset by the fact that British prime ministers may be de facto presidents, but they are not so de jure. They can relatively easily be removed from office either from within their own party or by a parliamentary vote of no confidence and subsequent early election. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her peers and replaced by another Conservative prime minister—John Major—who would go on to rule for another seven years. Her predecessor—James Callaghan—had fallen from power when a bitterly fought vote of no confidence triggered a general election that was eventually won by the Iron Lady. These events were dramatic to be sure, but in neither case was there chaos or serious talk of democratic principles being undermined.
In the United States, the president governs through an appointed cabinet of ministers, but his or her power is heavily restrained by the need for bills to be passed by Congress. This means that power in the US is—in principle—in a constant state of flux. Coups and chaos are forestalled by a constant to and fro of vetoes and counter-vetoes. It is, on the face of it, a highly effective democratic system of ‘checks and balances’ that reflects shifts and splits in public opinion better than the British system, in which one party tends to be given carte-blanche to do as it pleases for four or five years. In recent years, however, the ideological polarization of US politics along party lines has caused this system to produce stasis and gridlock rather than flexibility and flux. Government endures long shutdowns, budgets go unpassed, key posts unfilled. This is obviously not ideal, but it does not produce a system in which the central government is under constant threat of collapse. Impeachment is reserved for cases of clear or alleged wrongdoing (Nixon and Clinton respectively) and, with the exception of Richard Nixon, all US presidents have either died in office or served out their term.
French politics tends to be more tumultuous than that of its Anglo-Saxon counterparts, although less so in the Fifth Republic than in the Fourth—which saw countless prime ministers come and go in the course of its short history. Charles de Gaulle established a system whereby a parliamentary form of government is combined with a presidential one. The president is responsible for foreign policy and defense, while parliament deals with the (largely economic) nitty-gritty of everyday governance. French prime ministers are subject to the same insecurity as those of the UK and tend to have a relatively high turnover, but the two-tier system ensures that this instability takes place against the backdrop of the fixed term of the presidency. In the worst of cases, this results in a period of ‘cohabitation,’ in which a President from one party has to work with a Prime Minister from another, but this tends to produce compromise and consensus rather than conflict and political chaos.
No one of these three very different political systems is without its flaws, but each has proved remarkably resilient. The British system lumbers along, changing incrementally, within a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years; the US polity has survived relatively unchanged for over two hundred years and weathered civil war, social strife and two world conflicts. The French 5th Republic has now lasted longer than any political régime in France since 1789 and, despite the rise of the radical right in recent years, shows no signs of running out of steam.
What is different, then, about Brazil?
Brazil has a political system on the face of it very similar to that of the United States, although there is somewhat more of a concentration of power in the hands of the executive. This means that there can be no sharing of power as in France and the kind of checks and balances possible in the US are replaced by constant sniping and jockeying for power. The fixed-term nature of a presidential system, however, rules out the possibility of votes of no confidence and snap elections. The result is stalemate followed by some caretaker administration or a coup.
Endemic corruption is as much a product of this unwieldy political system as it is a cause of the general malaise. The system has, nevertheless, held up fairly well for the past twenty years despite ongoing scandals; in fact, corruption has declined somewhat and is more likely to be prosecuted now than in the early years of redemocratization in Brazil.
The problem is that it is a fair-weather system. It functioned during the FHC presidency because of enthusiasm at the economic stability brought about by the plano real or, less generously, fear that this might fail. It functioned under Lula and Dilma because of the real social progress brought about on the back of albeit transitory prosperity.
But it is the system itself that is rotten. It cannot sustain a serious economic downturn and, in turn, exacerbates that downturn. This is a vicious spiral and it is one that can only be halted by serious commitment to political reform. Any transitional government to come in the next few months and years should make this its overwhelming top priority, just as countering inflation was in the Itamar Franco transitional government of 1992-1994.
The news today that PMDB—a catch-all centrist party crucial to any governing coalition—has withdrawn its support for President Rousseff poses an insuperable obstacle to the continuation of the present government. It is thus with a very heavy heart that I use my blog today to call on Dilma to resign.
I have been a staunch supporter of PT governments over the past fourteen years. For this very reason, I do not want to see this once glorious period of Brazil’s history come to an end with a bloody self-sacrificial last stand or a coup that hands power over to an increasingly rightward leaning PSDB that models itself of the US GOP. Resignation, without admission of guilt, would at least bring some sort of honor and enable the PT to continue to pull some strings in an interim regime and regroup and rejuvenate itself in preparation for defeating the forces of the right in 2018. Above all, however, the PT must now throw its considerable weight behind the need for swift and comprehensive reform of the ill-begotten political system that has finally brought it down.