EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Friends of Brazil, Foes of Democracy

A response to Heloisa Pait

With her piece “Real Friends of Brazil,” Heloisa Pait seems to suggest a Schmittian reading of contemporary Brazilian politics. In a nutshell, she divides the world in two antagonistic groups. On one side, there are the “real friends of Brazil,” people like her who support the calls for impeachment of democratically-elected president Dilma Rousseff. Following the author’s logic, on the other side there are the “real enemies of Brazil,” people like us, who suggest that the attempt to remove the president from power through these means would be nothing short of a coup d’état.

While the Schmittian approach to politics might be appealing, particularly given its parsimonious model for explaining a rather messy sphere of social life, it is certainly a dangerous one, especially if taken as a normative stand. Schmitt’s emphasis on the fact that the political can be identified by its intensity, with the element of (self-)sacrifice in fighting the enemy being its extreme case, leads to a rather messianic notion of politics that might be incompatible with our complex contemporary society. However, not even Schmitt goes as far as Pait does. In fact, Schmitt makes a clear distinction between good and bad politics, by claiming that the demonization of one’s enemy inevitably leads to the latter. And this is what we are witnessing in Brazil right now: the representation of an individual as the ultimate evil in order to annihilate the political project she currently performs.

In what follows, we make a counter-argument to Pait’s suggestion that “real friends of Brazil” support not only the calls for impeachment but also the claim that these calls do not represent a threat to democracy. It is our contention that democracy is not an accomplished project, but always a “democracy to come.” Therefore, moving forward with an impeachment process that bluntly fails to fulfill constitutional requirements would equate not only to the elimination of the enemy, à la Schmitt, but also to a dangerous curtailment of democratic institutions.

A bird’s eye view of Brazilian democratic history

It is misleading to claim that democracy is a thoroughly accomplished goal in Brazil. As Marcelo Neves explains, taking democratic procedures for granted just because they have been inscribed in a written constitution ignores how important historical antecedents are for understanding a constitutional order. Particularly in Latin America, examples abound of how unwilling conservative social elites are to accept democratic procedures as the only valid mechanism for acquiring political power. This is true of the remote as well as the recent political history of the continent, as one can learn from the cases of Paraguay (2012), Honduras (2009) and Venezuela (2002). Brazil also has in common with many of its neighbors the fact that it is and remains, since colonial times, among the most unequal countries in the world. Its constitutional history can be described as a process whereby affluent social elites have tolerated institutionalized mechanisms of political decision-making as long as these did not contradict their interests.

Indeed, the military coup that took place in 1964, removing from office a president with almost 70% of popular support, was neither the first nor the last disruption of the constitutional order in the country. Before that, there were at least four moments of complete or partial breakdown of constitutional political institutions (in 1930, 1937, 1954, and 1961). And even after the 1964 coup, the military dictatorship imposed rules of exception in four other instances (in 1965, 1967, 1969 and 1977). There is a telling regularity in almost all of these moments: sectors of the economic elite were often unwilling to accept the outcome of democratic elections, which leads to the conclusion that Brazilian democracy is far from being an irreversible achievement. Actually, it was only thirteen years ago that, for the first time in half a century, an elected president handed power to another elected president of a different party.

Telling Brazilian political history as if it had begun with the 1988 constitution is deceptive. Constitutions are not only contingent political decisions made by a sovereign — be it the people or those who claim to be authorized to speak in their name. Political orders are also the outcome of highly improbable and always precarious social processes of stabilization of normative expectations, by which entire populations accept sticking to some legally binding procedures, even when these processes lead to decisions they might not welcome. Looking back at Brazilian history should warn us of the risks of not accepting electoral results. Moreover it should provoke our consciousness of how recent events relate to a long historical path of political decision-making based on the casuistic methods of interested groups.

Crisis in the New Republic; fear of democracy?

Dilma Roussef was elected with more than 52% of the popular vote no more than ten months ago. By the second electoral round, Brazilian voters were well aware of the many corruption scandals involving her party. During the campaign, the Mensalão, in which the Worker’s Party was involved in 2005, was again brought to view, as well as rumors concerning the state oil company Petrobrás, now known as Petrolão, which became the subject of broad attention and debate. And while most popular media in Brazil have been keen on informing the public about the possible connections between the president and the facts related to the oil company, no evidence has been presented thus far against her in particular, though a lot has been already proved against her party comrades.

Corruption must certainly be condemned. Nonetheless, as a social phenomenon, it is a constant feature of Brazilian political history: no government in our entire republican history has been exempt from a major corruption scandal. And getting rid of corruption has been a frequent pretext deployed by those who have attempted to break with constitutional democracy in the past. Along these lines, while this is the framing adopted in the current situation, corruption in fact can hardly be the reason why “the real friends of Brazil” now call for President Roussef’s impeachment. The current political crisis has other reasons.

Since 2013, the Brazilian economy has left its previous virtuous cycle of prosperity and fallen into a recession that visibly deepened after Roussef’s reelection. Last week the country lost its investment grade with one of the most important credit rating agencies, Standard and Poor’s, and economists from the banking sector now expect the Brazilian economy to shrink up to 2.55% in 2015. The unemployment rate, which has remained low for the last five years, seems to be rising, and the Brazilian currency has lost more than 30% of its value in the last 4 months. To make things even worse, some of the social programs which garnered support for the government among the lower classes, will soon be downsized. As a result, after less than nine months in office for her second term, Roussef’s approval rating has collapsed to only 8%.

This brings us to the present state of affairs. Certainly, Ms. Roussef is herself partially responsible for the current economic and political crisis. Or at least she has not taken the measures that could have prevented its worst effects. But the central question becomes whether her plummeting popularity can be a legitimate reason for interrupting a presidential mandate.

The juridical requirements for the impeachment: Institutional mechanisms securing an agonistic politics

Turning back to the Schmittian understanding of politics, even those who embrace it do so in a rather critical way. A case in point is Chantal Mouffe’s model of agonistic politics, which might be useful to understand and deal with a deeply conflictual context such as the one characterizing contemporary Brazil. While Mouffe relies on Carl Schmitt to postulate the inherently antagonistic character of the political, she departs from him in developing her democratic model because he “requires the existence of a homogeneous demos, and this precludes any possibility of pluralism.”

Against both deliberative and liberal democracy, Mouffe proposes “adversarial democracy,” a model able to transform antagonism into agonism, or, in other terms, relationships of enmity into relationships of adversary. This is done through the invention of legitimate political channels that allow dissenting voices to express themselves. Such channels are founded on a minimal consensus around two elements that enable democracy: the democratic institution of liberty and equality for all. This radical and pluralist democracy is always “a democracy ‘to come,’ as conflict and antagonism are at the same time its condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of its full realization.” As an unrealized and open project, it allows for its constant rethinking by those who are implicated in it.

In the Brazilian case, not only are we living under a democracy “to come” but there is also a historical record of failure to abide by its procedures. The 1988 Constitution, which founded the so called “New Republic,” was the product of a very careful arrangement aiming exactly at the goal of stabilizing political tensions through a legally regulated democratic process. As described earlier, contestation within democratic mechanisms abounds in our history, but it also proliferates dissatisfaction with these same mechanisms on the part of those who lose in the democratic game, particularly conservative elites. And this is the case of the opponents who now call for impeachment.

According to the Constitution, it is certainly not forbidden to talk about impeachment; however, meeting its requirements is an entirely different issue. While the impeachment is a political process, this does not mean that it lacks the requisite of a juridical argument. That is to say, for that political process to move forward, it is necessary not only to make but also prove a strong legal case against the president. It is indispensable to produce evidence that the president has committed what is called a “crime of responsibility or improbity,” and, because it is a crime, it is also necessary to demonstrate, through evidence, a clear and specific intention to have committed it. Along these lines, it is not sufficient to simply claim that Ms. Roussef was silent in the face of some illegal activity; there has to be proof of her involvement in these actions and the definitive intention to carry them out. None of this has been demonstrated thus far. Quite to the contrary, the current government has had a notoriously, and historically exceptionally, positive attitude towards investigations carried out by the Federal Police and the Judiciary, demonstrating no attempt to interrupt or stop them.

It is not our aim, however, to support the current government in a substantive way; as stated before, it is heavily responsible for the current situation in which the country is drowning. But now that the “New Republic” faces a novel crisis, it is time for the institutions to show that they can endure processes of political turmoil and adversity without collapsing. In fact, democracy can only exist if its procedures are stable enough to endure political tensions and social conflicts, even if these tensions encompass falling popularity and economic instability. Democracy excludes the possibility of any party claiming to acquire power for being “the nation’s real friends.”

There is a normative structure in place, which establishes clear requirements for the politically costly process of impeachment to take place. Pait envisions impeachment as a mere mechanism of recall of a rather unpopular president. But unpopularity, as bad as it might sound, does not constitute legitimate reason to impeach an elected representative according to the Brazilian Constitution (see Articles 85 and 86). Such a move would not only suggest that Brazilian democratic procedures are incapable of processing dissensus but, even more importantly, would demonstrate that not all players are capable of abiding by the rules of the democratic game. Moreover, this would certainly establish a dangerous precedent according to which any president facing poor rates of popular support could be subject to an impeachment procedure.

At the end of the day, Pait suggests bending democratic norms in order to remedy the political failure of the opposition — that is, their loss of the 2014 presidential elections, all this by portraying opponents as the ultimate enemy who threaten one’s existence and therefore need to be eliminated. If this is what it means to be a friend of Brazil, let’s then be clear that a friend of Brazil can only be a foe of democracy.

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Mariana Prandini Assis

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