Here's the past 24 hours of politics in Brazil:
- Brazil's equivalent of the speaker of the house, Waldir Maranhão, basically calls backsies on an impeachment vote his predecessor in the house held against President Dilma Rousseff. I mean that literally: He said the vote to impeach Rousseff was "annulled."
- The leader of the senate, Renan Calheiros, then rejects Maranhão's annulment, and says he's going ahead with a senate vote on Rousseff's impeachment anyway.
- Maranhão's party threatens to kick him out, as they support Rousseff's impeachment.
- Maranhão sends a letter to Calheiros saying he has canceled his annulment, and that the old house impeachment vote stands. He gives no explanation as to why he changed his mind.
Again, this all happened within a single day. Can you imagine being Brazilian and having to live with this kind of political inconsistency?
The upshot of all this is that it looks like Rousseff's impeachment is on track, with a vote scheduled for Wednesday. But the past 24 hours of drama highlights just how much chaos the impeachment proceedings have created for Brazil's political system.
This is a serious problem. For the past 20 years, it seemed like Brazil had finally transcended a long history of chaos and lawlessness in the government. But all this chaos that's suffused the impeachment process has revealed that the country may be reverting to its bad old habits — a scary thought in Latin America's largest economy.
How the past 24 hours came to be
The chain of events that led to Maranhão's bizarre series of decisions began last week, when his predecessor as president of the chamber of deputies, Eduardo Cunha, was suspended from his job.
Cunha was the mastermind behind Rousseff's impeachment, which he has been pushing hard for since at least December 2015. Nominally, the impeachment charges are about Rousseff manipulating public banks to hide the scope of Brazil's deficit. In reality, those charges are a pretext. Cunha was taking advantage of public anger over Brazil's awful economy and a massive, separate corruption scandal to push out his chief political opponent.
The great irony here is that Rousseff wasn't implicated in said massive corruption scandal, which involved upward of $5 billion being siphoned away from Petrobras, Brazil's state-run oil company. But Cunha has been.
Prosecutors allege that Cunha took as much as $40 million in bribes as part of the scheme and hid it abroad in a Swiss bank account. He faces up to 184 years in prison if convicted.
Despite Cunha facing corruption charges, he managed to push through an impeachment vote against Rousseff on April 17. About three weeks later, on May 5, Brazil's Supreme Court ordered Cunha to step down from office, on the reasonable grounds that one cannot run the lower house of Brazil's congress while facing major corruption charges.
Maranhão was Cunha's deputy, so he took over after the court ordered Cunha to step down. Maranhão's personal political ideology was relatively unknown for someone in such an important position, but he hailed from the center-right Progressive Party. Given that Rousseff is on the left, you might expect Maranhão to be at least moderately supportive of the push to impeach her.
Which is why his decision to "annul" the impeachment vote on Monday came as a total shock. Maranhão claimed there were "irregularities" in the vote held under Cunha (which wouldn't be surprising) and thus claimed they'd need to vote again for the senate to proceed with impeachment.
Initially, observers of Brazilian politics were dumbfounded. Nobody knew what Maranhão was doing, or even if it was legal. "I have a doctorate in political science and I have no idea what's going on," wrote Rio de Janeiro State University's Mauricio Santoro, in a tweet that went viral in the country.
Quickly, though, pressure began to build on Maranhão to reverse his position. The senate announced that it would ignore the annulment and continue with impeachment, unabated. A Supreme Court justice said Maranhão's move was probably illegal. Maranhão's own party threatened to kick him out.
And so, without any warning or explanation, Maranhão walked back his decision to annul impeachment. In the short run, it seems, Brazil avoided a constitutional crisis: a fight between its two houses of parliament over whether one house could simply call backsies on a past vote.
Why the drama matters
But while the chaos of the past 24 hours appears to be behind us (emphasize on "appears"), it's still an ominous sign for Brazilian democracy.
"This is another sign of this new era of political instability Brazil has entered," says Brian Winter, a Brazil expert at the Americas Society and Council on the Americas. "It's quite similar to the old Brazil, which was a place where you really didn't know from one year to the next what kind of government would be in power and what it would do."
It's easy to forget that prior to the past 20-odd years, Brazil had been plagued by political instability — suffering military coups in both 1930 and 1965. The latter military regime lasted until 1988, meaning that Brazil's experience as a stable democracy is only fairly recent.
In 1994, "you had a president from one party democratically hand over power to an opposition party president for only the second time in 80 years," Winter explains.
In that lens, then, the past two decades of stable democracy seems like an exception. During that time, Brazil had experienced a series of democratic elections and moved toward addressing some of its biggest political problems, like corruption and poverty. It looked like the country had turned the corner — until the economy crashed in 2015.
Brazil's economic growth in the 2000s and early 2010s was always unsustainable. It was fueled by exports of commodities like soy, iron, and oil, which were quite expensive during the 2000s. But beginning around 2012, prices fell considerably, tanking Brazil's economy.
To make matters worse, Rousseff had gone on a spending spree: The deficit increased from 2 percent of GDP in 2010 to 10 percent in 2015. Government debt is now at 70 percent of Brazil's GDP, far too much for a middle-income country, creating a serious inflation problem.
These two factors combined to produce an economic nightmare: an even worse version of the stagflation Americans experienced in the 1970s. People have less money due to the recession, and what money they still control is increasingly worthless. Brazil's economy shrank 3.8 percent last year, and inflation was at 10.7 percent.
The basic concern, then, is that this economic crisis is bringing back Brazil's bad habits. It's difficult to believe that Cunha or his mostly corrupt allies were genuinely concerned with Rousseff's alleged improprieties. The corruption accusations against many of them are much worse, making it clear that they're using impeachment as a weapon of political warfare rather than the worst-case remedy it's supposed to be.
Maranhão's flirtation with "annulling" the impeachment vote isn't much better: It illustrates that Brazil's politicians don't have a ton of respect for the law or established constitutional procedure.
It's possible that these aren't aberrations but rather the new normal. That the stress of the economic crisis has undermined Brazil's fragile progress toward political stability and functioning government.
"Why are we back here?" Winter asks. "It's certainly a function of the fact that the economy is in its worst recession in 80 years, maybe ever. ... This economic catastrophe has been severe enough that it has resuscitated some of the political practices that seem to have died over the past 20 years."
Of course, we can't know for sure whether things will stay this bad. If there's been one consistent fact about Brazil's political crisis over the past two years, it's that it's been unpredictable.
But the point is that the stakes in Brazil's impeachment drama are very high. This isn't just about whether Dilma Rousseff stays in office. It's about how much damage the proceedings might do to Brazilian democracy.