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The Campaign to Impeach Brazil's President Sends a Perverse Message to Corrupt Politicians

ICE Graveyard 21/04/2016 Daniel Gross
BRAZIL © Tetra Images via Getty Images BRAZIL

After Brazil's congressmen voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff last Sunday, the speaker of the lower house of congress, Eduardo Cunha, who dragged her to the edge of the political abyss, has bolstered his own chances of political survival. The contrasting fortunes of Dilma, who has never been accused of personally taking bribes, and Cunha, who has recently been indicted by the Supreme Court for pocketing millions of dollars of kickbacks, sets a terrible precedent for Brazil's notoriously corrupt politicians.
Many supporters of impeachment see the removal of Dilma as the first step in a clean-out of crooked political leaders, with Vice President Michel Temer and Cunha next in line. However, unlike Big Brother - the reality TV show that is still wildly popular in Brazil - the public do not get a chance to evict unpopular politicians every week. Instead, the impeachment drive has raised the likelihood that Cunha will survive the onslaught of corruption allegations against him.
In exchange for orchestrating the impeachment proceedings against Dilma, Cunha's allies have pushed for congress to grant him "amnesty". Federal Deputy Paulinho da For├ža, who was asked by reporters whether his ally Cunha had won support among colleagues as a result of orchestrating the vote against Dilma, said that "he [Cunha] gained strength - it's thanks to him that impeachment passed."
In most other democracies, politicians in Cunha's situation would have been forced to resign long ago, but in Brazil, he is more powerful than ever. His allies now argue that he has enough support among key party leaders and members of the Congressional Ethics Committee to block a motion that would oust him as leader for lying to congress about secret bank accounts he has held abroad. Meanwhile, it could take years before the Supreme Court decides the corruption case against him.
The irony of the chaotic impeachment process is that in the wake of Operation Car Wash - an investigation into corruption at Brazil's state run oil giant Petrobras - the president is one of the very few high-level politicians who has not been directly implicated in receiving kickbacks. Instead, her opponents are impeaching her on the pretext that the government used money from state banks to balance the budget, a tactic used by previous Brazilian presidents, albeit on a lesser scale.
Critics argue that Dilma, first as a former chairman of the advisory board of Petrobras and then as president, turned a blind eye to corruption at the scandal-ridden company. However, there is evidence that it was her patchy attempts at combating graft that contributed more to her downfall.
In Brazil, opposing corruption is like running up a downward escalator: politicians who actively work against it, risk taking a tumble. A recent witness in the Car Wash investigation alleged that Dilma's rivalry with Cunha began when she dismantled a corruption scheme at state-owned electricity company, Furnas, in which several of his allies were beneficiaries. Dilma may now be paying the price for that intervention.
Additionally, last year, Dilma proposed a package of anti-corruption measures but it remains stuck in congress. Perhaps this is not surprising given that around 60% of members of the lower house of congress face charges or are being investigated for corruption and other serious crimes.
Ultimately, people engage in corruption when they think they can get away with it. Kicking out Dilma, while Cunha remains in power sends a sinister message to Brazil's politicians: You won't be punished for pocketing bribes if you have allies in the right places, but if you make enemies in the wrong places, your career could be destroyed for any offense, no matter how minor.

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