SANTIAGO – It was the kind of politics Brazilians thought they had left behind: One day the sitting president appoints a popular former president to her cabinet in order to save him from prosecution, and pundits are quick to conclude that he is in charge. The next day, a federal judge blocks his appointment, claims and counterclaims are filed before the courts, millions take to the streets demanding the president’s impeachment, and no one is quite certain who is in charge.
Brazil is facing its biggest political crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1985. President Dilma Rousseff has done much to earn her single-digit approval ratings. Until recently, she seemed likely to muddle through to the end of her four-year term in 2018, if only because opposition parties were reluctant to clean up the economic mess her government created.
Today, no one is sure. By trying to save her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff made it harder to save her own presidency. Now that the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), once the largest government party, has quit the ruling coalition, the two-thirds vote in Congress needed to impeach Rousseff is within reach.
The good news is that certain institutions of Brazilian democracy are working well. After all, it is not in every democracy that prosecutors and judges have the autonomy needed to go after billionaire businessmen or a once-popular former president.