Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – For most spectators, the most surprising event of the entire impeachment proceeding was the abrupt division of the vote on impeachment (guilt or innocence) from the vote on punishment (loss of political rights).
The split vote seemed analogous to a football (soccer) match, where one team has been winning 1-0 for almost all of the match, until suddenly, in the very last minute of injury time, the losing side manages, out of nowhere, a goal to tie the score. For the team that was winning, the game feels like a defeat; for the last gasp achievers, it counts as a win.
It turns out that the mastermind of this plan was Renan Calheiros, President of the Senate, who worked out the details well in advance with STF Justice Lewandowski. When a PT senator made the proposal to have two separate votes, Lewandowski’s posture indicated he knew full well it was coming. So he decided that, as President pro tempore of the Senate, he could take that decision on his own, rather than submitting it to the full Senate.
As almost all lawyers and law professors have pointed out, Lewandowski’s legal reasoning was extremely poor. He basically relied on an STF decision from the Collor impeachment which permitted Collor to be banned from public office for eight years, even though he could not be impeached, because he had resigned.
What Renan and Lewandowski knew, however, is that impeachment is essentially political, not juridical. There were lots of political reasons to split the vote. One was that Dilma has always seemed personally honest, unlike Collor who was a crook. Another reason is that it was a crime without a victim—sure, Banco do Brasil had to wait for its money, but it eventually was paid.
Yet another reason was that everybody in Congress knew that the “pedaladas” were, technically, “crimes de responsabilidade”, but they also knew that prior Presidents had long done the same, without fear of punishment. And, finally, if the vote was not split, everybody would have appealed to the STF and no one knew what they would do.
So, for a minor crime, a minor punishment seemed politically justifiable.
One troubling thing about the vote not to apply any punishment to an impeached president, is that it reinforces the argument that there has been, in fact, a “parliamentary coup”. The House and the Senate had no confidence in Dilma and so they voted her out of office, using the “pedaladas” as an excuse. That’s what happens in democratic countries with parliamentary systems of government, but not in presidential systems.
The other troubling thing is that the vote represents what the French call “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”; or, if you prefer colloquial English, “same old, same old.” In essence, the split vote ploy was PT and PMDB leadership conspiring to impose their will on the rest of the Senate and the nation. That’s what has been happening in Brazil ever since Lula was first elected, and it’s a little bit scary to see that it may be coming back again.
The Curmudgeon repeatedly urged Dilma to resign; had she done so, she’d be in the same position as she now is–a former President with full political rights. And she’d have saved Brazil a lot of conflict.