As one Brazilian journalist told the Times, Rousseff is being judged by “a gang of thieves.”
Standing most prominently in judgment is the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, home to more members of Congress under investigation than any other political party, according to Transparency Brazil. Vice President Michel Temer, who will replace Rousseff if she is impeached, could himself be impeached over the same budgetary maneuvers haunting Rousseff. Temer is a member of the PMDB. So is House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is leading the impeachment campaign against Rousseff and is second in line for her seat; he’s accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes as part of an epic corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company Petrobras. Third in line for the presidency is Renan Calheiros, the Senate president, who is also under investigation for taking bribes in the Petrobras scandal. Calheiros belongs to—surprise!—the PMDB.
The PMDB hardly has a monopoly on political corruption in Brazil. But it is representative of many of the forces currently roiling Brazilian politics—forces that will prevail even if Rousseff’s impeachment elevates the Temer-Cunha-Calheiros triumvirate.
Brazil’s largest political party, the PMDB got its start as the official opposition party under Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and ’70s. Since Brazil’s transition to democracy in 1985, the PMDB has become, at best, a big-tent, centrist party that welcomes figures from across the political spectrum. At worst, it’s a party that stands for nothing—other than the unvarnished, often unscrupulous pursuit of political power and leverage. Or maybe that’s not the worst thing you could say about the party. The PMDB has become “the sump into which every rivulet of political corruption [has] drained” and “a byword for plunder of public resources,” the historian Perry Anderson wrote recently in the London Review of Books. After Dilma comes the sump.
In Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power, Michael Reid, the Latin America columnist at The Economist, notes that the PMDB hasn’t even fielded its own presidential candidate since suffering a crushing electoral defeat in 1994, preferring instead to stockpile influence in Congress and in state and local governments. This allows it to act as a perennial kingmaker, which is how the PMDB ended up in a coalition government with Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party. The PMDB is the biggest of several “catch-all parties” in Brazil, Reid writes, which aim not to advance big policy ideas or ideologically coherent agendas, but “to command a slice of the state and practise the politics of patronage in the form of government jobs and control over public contracts, and to extract federal money for public works in their districts.”
Reid cites Marcos Nobre, a Brazilian political philosopher, who argues that this approach, pemedebismo, “is the dominant political culture in Brazil, and that its core is a ‘system of vetoes,’ and ‘the permanent postponement of definitive solutions.’” Pemedebismo can foster moderation and compromise in Brasília. But it can also paralyze the government, blocking reforms of public spending and the political system as a whole.