Brazil is in the middle of a serious political crisis. It's gotten so bad that 62.8 percent of Brazilians believe President Dilma Rousseff should be impeached. Her government has less than an 8 percent approval rating. Rousseff's ruling coalition looks increasingly shaky: The head of Brazil's lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, publicly broke with Rousseff last week and encouraged his party, the largest in Brazil, to leave her coalition. It still seems unlikely that Rousseff will be impeached — but it's not impossible.
Here's a brief, simple explanation of what's going on in Brazil — and of the Petrobras corruption scandal at the center of it all.
Petrobras is Brazil's massive, semi-public energy conglomerate. The Petrobras scandal began in March 2014, when a former Petrobras executive accused the company of running a slush fund that diverted money to political parties, including Rousseff's Workers Party, in exchange for votes and influence. That kicked off an investigation called "Operation Car Wash," which has ensnared many of Brazil's most powerful business leaders and politicians.
Rousseff won a second term in October 2014 by a tiny margin, promising to focus on anti-corruption in her second term. The next month, police arrested 23 people in an unprecedented series of raids across the country. By June, the head of Brazil's largest construction company had been arrested. Former President Lula Inácio da Silva is now under investigation for influence peddling. Fifty politicians, including Cunha, are allegedly implicated.
Rousseff has not been implicated directly. But many of the politicians under suspicion are members of her party or her coalition partners, and much of the alleged malfeasance took place while she was the minister for energy and chair of Petrobras.
This March, huge countrywide protests called for her impeachment. Some protesters even carried signs calling for the military to stage a coup against Brazil's government — as it did in 1964.
The Petrobras scandal has been especially explosive because it touches on bigger issues of corruption, inequality, and public trust. Moreover, public outrage has been exacerbated by Brazil's economic woes. Its currency is the weakest it has been against the dollar in 12 years. Rating agencies threaten to downgrade the country's investment credit rating. And Rousseff's attempts to address those problems through austerity programs have been painful for Brazilians.
There is a silver lining to the scandal. Brazil is holding very powerful politicians and business leaders accountable for their breach of public trust, which shows that its democratic institutions are working.
But at the same time, the scandal appears to be paralyzing Brazil's actual democracy at a time of economic crisis. Rousseff needs her coalition partners to help pass further austerity measures in order to avoid further damage to the economy, but the scandal has weakened her coalition to the point of fracture. The longer this scandal continues to grow, the more likely it becomes that it will have catastrophic consequences for Brazil.