Put simply: Does the action against Rousseff have a solid legal basis, or is it purely political?
Supporters of the impeachment note that Congress is charging Rousseff with a genuine violation of the law—using budgetary tricks to fund social programs and conceal the sorry state of government finances—and that the proceedings are adhering to constitutional guidelines. (Rousseff denies the charges.) More broadly, they point out that Rousseff’s fiscal mismanagement, and failure to stop her political allies from plundering public resources, have left the country’s economy and politics in tatters.
Opponents of the process claim the leaders of the campaign against Rousseff, including the now-suspended speaker of the house, seized on the accounting maneuvers as a pretext to obstruct investigations into their own alleged corruption. What’s taking place in Brazil might look like a juridical impeachment process, they argue, but it’s actually a blatantly political effort to unseat an unpopular leader. In briefly annulling the impeachment vote in the lower house, for example, acting Speaker Waldir Maranhao criticized lawmakers for disclosing their position on impeachment in the media before the vote, and party leaders for instructing members how to cast their ballots.
Although the specifics of this debate are unique to Brazil, the larger themes are not. Confusion and controversy over where politics ends and the law begins is inherent, to varying degrees, in the impeachment process around the world. The British colonies borrowed impeachment from England—where no one has been impeached since 1806—and Americanized it, and Brazil borrowed impeachment from the United States and Brazilianized it. America’s Founding Fathers enshrined impeachment in the U.S. Constitution primarily to prevent the country’s chief executive from abusing or neglecting his office (they had just overthrown a king, after all). “[F]ar from being above the laws, [the executive] is amenable to them in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment,” James Wilson argued.
What this setup meant in practice, Alexander Hamilton reasoned, is that the impeachment of a government official would by definition be deeply divisive in a democracy. The grounds for impeachment “are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself,” he wrote. Charging officials with such offenses was bound to polarize the public and Congress:
The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
Presented with an impeachment proceeding, politicians won’t suddenly dress in judge’s robes and dispassionately investigate malfeasance—especially when their rivals are the accused. They’re liable to give as much consideration to power dynamics as to proof of wrongdoing.