Brazil's Crisis Reflects Demise of Representative Democracy Across the West

SAO PAULO -- On August 31st, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached by the Brazilian Senate. After five long days of debate 61 senators out of 81, far more than the two thirds majority required to remove a president, condemned her for fiscal and budgetary crimes.

Her supporters alleged that the president was the victim of a 'parliamentary coup'. A person elected by 54 million votes, innocent of any crime, had been unjustly overthrown. In Latin America this contention was echoed by paragons of democracy and rule of law such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Needless to say this is untrue. The facts, as usual, speak for themselves. The impeachment process was both judicial and political. The procedure established by the Brazilian Constitution was followed à la lettre. Both the lower and upper houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly first to prosecute and ultimately to condemn. The trial in the Senate was presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Time and again the highest court in the land reaffirmed the legitimacy of the process.

The facts speak for themselves. The impeachment process was both judicial and political.

But it is true that at stake was much more than the misdeeds of a person. The driving force behind the impeachment was the conviction affirmed in the streets by millions of Brazilians that the power system established by former president Lula and the Worker's Party was guilty of plunging Brazil in to the most profound economic, political and moral crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1985.

In her personal defense in the Senate trial the president emotionally reiterated her innocence ("I did not steal, I do not have illegal bank accounts abroad...). She withstood hours of unflinching questioning. In a poignant moment she invoked her armed resistance to the military dictatorship and the torture she suffered for her engagement. Even if the young guerrillera of the past was not as democratic as she claims, I respect her fighting spirit. Then and now she proved to be a warrior.

Her pugnacity, however, does not justify nor absolve her fiscal irresponsibility -- the billions of dollars illegally transferred to private and foreign corporations, nor her incapacity, while president of Petrobras' Board of Governors, to prevent the sacking of the largest Brazilian company for the benefit of the Worker"s Party and the arc of parties supporting her government.

My sense is that Brazil has turned a sad page in its history. I would have much preferred that Dilma Rousseff had proved the political and administrative capacity to complete her mandate. Unfortunately the crime of responsibility was compounded by the collapse in her overall ability to govern.

What are we left with? Surely with the lost illusions of the many who believed in the promises of the Workers Party. But also with an economy in recession, beset by massive unemployment. And with a society torn apart by an unprecedented wave of corruption scandals and a pervasive sense of disenchantment.

Unfortunately, the crime of responsibility was compounded by the collapse in her overall ability to govern.

If the president was not the author of the corruption schemes that have been exposed by an independent media and fearless judges, she profited politically from them. The politicians under prosecution include so many political parties that it is the "political class" as a whole that stands indicted in the eyes of a vigilant public opinion. The collapse of the Worker's Party system of government led to the crumbling of the political system in its entirety.

Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva talks with Brazil President Dilma Rousseff. (Getty)

And yet not all is bleak. Brazilian democracy has proven resilient. Millions of citizens took repeatedly to the streets calling for decency in public life, efficiency and equity in the economy, and for safeguarding of civic rights and freedoms in society.

A Crisis of Representative Democracy

We are indeed witnessing in Brazil - as in the traditional democracies of the West - the impact of great economic and technological transformations. National states are weakened by globalization, societies are increasingly structurally fragmented by a new division of labor and exposed to the tensions and imbalances of growing cultural diversity. All this leads to anxiety and fear about the future, with uncertainty over how to preserve social cohesion, ensure jobs and reduce inequality.

In democracies in crisis, the class differences mix up with other forms of social identity. Established political parties are bound to lose space. Narratives that seek to connect with and address the grievances of disempowered masses fill the void left by the demise of representative democracy. We see this also with Donald Trump in the U.S. and the rise of xenophobia in Europe.

This is a situation fraught with risk. In the regions where it is more deeply rooted -- the Americas and Europe -- representative democracy is in crisis. At the core of this crisis is the widening gap between people's aspirations and the capacity of political institutions to respond to the demands of society. It is one of the ironies of our age that this deficit of trust in political institutions coexists with the rise of citizens capable of making the choices that shape their lives and influence the future of their societies.

In the regions where it is more deeply rooted -- the Americas and Europe -- representative democracy is in crisis.

Citizen action and public opinion have transformative power. But institutions are necessary. There is no democracy without political parties. Structures provide the field of possibilities for human agency, but it is the will of individuals and segments of society, driven by values and interests, that create the opening for change.

Brazil, in all its cultural diversity, is always in a state of flux. We are less overburdened with the past and more open to innovation. Either we prove ourselves capable of reinventing the sense and direction of politics or public discontent will again take to the streets, railing against who knows whom and in favor of what.

To put in a nutshell, our challenge is to bridge the gap between demos and res publica, between people and the public interest, reweaving the threads that may reconnect the political system with the demands of society.

Earlier on WorldPost:

Brazil Protests