Impeachment a good sign for Brazil's democracy, expert says

The Brazilian Senate has voted to suspend President Dilma Rouseff and start the impeachment trial, which speaks for its institutional flexibility. 

The Brazilian Senate has voted 55:22 for their president Dilma Rouseff to be put on trial for “crimes of responsibility” as a result of alleged window dressing of government accounts. In short, the Senate voted for her impeachment. We speak with Young Hun Kim, expert on impeachment and presidential politics in new democracies about what this means and what will happen next.  

ResearchGate: How did this happen? What are the underlying reasons for this?

Kim: The ‘official’ reason for impeaching Rousseff is she violated public finance regulations. More specifically, the opposition argues that she misused money from state banks to hide the government budget deficit and pay for popular social programs before the presidential election in 2014. The real reason, however, may be found in the typical politicking. It has been argued that legislators implicated in the corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash are behind the impeachment drive. They may have thought that removing unpopular Rousseff would be dramatic enough to divert public attention from the investigation into them.

Dilma Rouseff, elected president of Brazil in October 2010.
Dilma Rouseff, elected president of Brazil in October 2010. Picture: Wikimedia.

RG: What do you think an impeachment says about the state of democracy?

Kim: It is important to note that efforts to impeach a president are not rare in new democracies and the ongoing development in Brazil is one of those. This certainly is one of the most dramatic political events one could witness in presidential systems. However, I would like to understand the impeachment drive as a sign of institutional flexibility in the Brazilian presidential system. By seeking a constitutional removal of Rousseff, legislators seem to engage actively in resolving the political crisis without relying on extra-constitutional means. Otherwise, the country might experience a more serious crisis such as intervention of the military and the end of democracy, as happened in the past.

RG: What will happen now?

Kim: Now that the recommendation has passed in the Senate, Rousseff will have to step down and Vice President Michel Temer takes over the presidency temporarily. In the meantime, the committee which was formed after the vote in the Chamber of Deputies reviews the impeachment motion and votes on the findings. If passed with a simple majority in the committee and the Senate, then the Senate holds the final vote. With a two-thirds majority, Rousseff will become officially impeached and leave office.

There are three possible outcomes. One is Rousseff is convicted in the trial and officially impeached. Based on the experience of new presidential democracies, this appears to be the least likely outcome. Since 1974 to present, only a small number of presidents had to leave office early via conclusion of impeachment proceedings – e.g., Albert Zafy in Madagascar (1996), Rolandas Paksas in Lithuania (2004), Fernando Lugo in Paraguay (2012).

Second, Rousseff may decide to resign before the conclusion of the trial in order not to be the first impeached president of the country. This option has been quite common for presidents who were most likely to be impeached if they had not resigned. One good example is found in Brazil. In 1992, the Chamber of Deputies passed an impeachment motion of Fernando Collor over his involvement in embezzlement and corruption. Later he resigned before the impeachment process was completed in the Senate. This would be a more likely option for Rousseff once she realizes that impeachment is unavoidable.

Third, the trial may fail to convict Rousseff and she stays in office. As of now, this outcome appears to have a slim chance considering the partisan composition in the Senate. This, however, may become a more plausible outcome depending on how successfully Rousseff will be able to change the course of public opinion which currently is not favorable to her.

RG: Historically, how have impeachments influenced the fate of countries?

Kim: Based on the data I have collected on new presidential democracies, about 45 percent of them have experienced serious attempts to impeach a president in between 1974 and 2003, some more than once. Even so, only few attempts resulted in the formal constitutional removal of a president. Nevertheless, unsuccessful impeachment attempts are tied to a higher frequency of early departures from office (e.g., resignation, declaration of incapacity, and even deposition). For example, about 90 percent of presidents who faced no impeachment effort completed their terms, while only 69 percent of presidents were able to finish their terms when faced an impeachment attempt. That seems to suggest that impeachment attempts indeed are sources of executive instability.

At the same time, impeachment attempts, as noted above, can be understood as a means to resolving inter-branch conflicts. Challenged presidents may eventually leave office early if not via impeachment. Or they may stay in office. No matter what the outcome may be, an impeachment attempt may have served as a steam valve that corrects things that otherwise have gone wrong. That may explain in part why new democracy remains intact in many countries, in particular in Latin America, even after impeachment attempts.

RG: Are there right and/or wrong reasons to impeach a leader?

Kim: Constitutionally speaking, impeaching a president by the legislature may only be justified when she violated the constitution and/or engaged in grave misconduct. The problem is what constitutes constitutional violations and grave misconduct is subject to debate. Suppose that the constitution requires a president to remain politically neutral, but the president wishes her party to fare well in the upcoming legislative election. Then would that be a serious constitutional violation enough to call for her removal? Probably not, unless the president systematically mobilizes the bureaucracy to favor the ruling party. But South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun was impeached in the National Assembly in 2004 for the controversial charge of ‘illegal’ electioneering. Later he was reinstated by the Constitutional Court. Similarly, Rousseff is accused of having violated public finance regulations, which, according to her, has been done by previous leaders. To some observers this violation is not a major one that merits impeachment. Even so, the impeachment motion was passed in the lower house and her political fortune is at risk. In short, there are no right and/or wrong reasons to impeach a president. What appears to be a wrong reason at first may easily turn into a right one and vice versa depending on political interests of different parties. This probably is not what constitutional designers anticipated to see when they included impeachment in the constitution.

RG: In your article you focus on impeachments in new democracies, like Brazil. Are they more susceptible to impeachments or threats to impeach than ‘old’ democracies?

Kim: I think presidents in new democracies are more vulnerable to impeachment drives than counterparts in consolidated democracies. Because they are established democracies, they are more likely to rely on less extreme measures of addressing inter-branch conflicts. Also political actors are more willing to negotiate and compromise before resorting to an impeachment. In addition, ‘wrong’ reasons are not likely to be cited to impeach a president in established democracies because doing so may not garner enough support of political elites and mass public and may even backfire.

RG: What role do the lower and upper house play in Rosseff’s case?

Kim: The fact that two partisan institutions – the lower and upper houses – play the most important roles in determining Rousseff’s political fate does not seem to be the optimal institutional configuration. This is especially the case when she is surrounded by hostile legislators because political considerations may take precedence over the legal logic. That being said, it would be more desirable to allow an independent judicial branch to play a more important role in the impeachment trial as some other presidential systems do.

Picture: Senado federal on flickr.