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WHO WAS INVOLVED: Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president (2011-16); Michel Temer, then her vice president; Jair Bolsonaro, then an obscure right-wing congressman.
WHAT HAPPENED: When Rousseff was reelected in October 2014 with 52% of the vote, hardly anyone imagined she’d be out of a job just two years later. But the tide turned quickly. Brazil entered a severe recession that was largely of Rousseff’s making, and by April 2015, more than 60% of Brazilians said they wanted her gone. Happy to oblige, Brazil’s Congress put together an impeachment case based on so-called pedaladas – fiscal maneuvers that Rousseff used to disguise the true size of the deficit during her reelection campaign.
It wasn’t Watergate – but Congress concluded it was enough. Given widespread public anger over both the economy and the growing revelations of the Lava Jato corruption scandal, which implicated numerous members of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, the process acquired unstoppable momentum. On Aug. 31, 2016, the Senate voted 61-20 to remove Rousseff from office, handing power to her former running mate-turned-rival Michel Temer. Brazil’s establishment hoped Temer would restore order to both Brasília and the economy, but neither happened. Temer struggled with his own corruption issues, slow growth and even lower approval ratings than Rousseff’s, setting the stage for the election of a total outsider in 2018.
WHY IT REALLY MATTERED: Debate still rages in Brazil about whether it was an “impeachment” or a “coup,” reflecting a deeper ideological split that may not heal for years to come. But the true winner from the process was indisputable: Jair Bolsonaro.
After dedicating his impeachment vote to a late military officer convicted of torturing political prisoners in the 1960s and 70s, Bolsonaro was widely condemned by mainstream media and politicians. But that turned into a badge of honor at a time of profound popular disillusionment with the Brazilian establishment. Bolsonaro’s social media following soared after his vote, drawing attention to a figure previously best known for telling a fellow legislator “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” It was a turning point that would ultimately lead him to the presidency.
Meanwhile, the questionable use of impeachment – the second in Brazil in just 23 years – may have changed politics for years to come. Because of its repeated use, some political analysts believe Brazil now has characteristics of a parliamentary system, in which impeachment is akin to a vote of no confidence. Temer faced such a threat, and impeachment was also openly discussed as a possibility for Bolsonaro in the initial months of his term. The ultimate legacy of Rousseff’s removal may be that no Brazilian president is ever truly safe.