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Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, explained in 3 numbers

Embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff Addresses Crowd In Brasilia (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Late on Wednesday, Brazil's Senate voted to put President Dilma Rousseff on trial for impeachment. This means she's out of a job for up to six months: Brazil's constitution requires the president to step down while on trial for impeachment in the senate.

Vice President Michel Temer will take over — perhaps permanently, as it seems unlikely that Rousseff will be able to come back from the suspension.

Nominally, this impeachment proceeding is about financial shenaniganry during Rousseff's 2014 reelection bid. Rousseff is accused of fudging government accounting to hide the scope of the government's deficit problem during the 2014 campaign.

But that's not the real reason she's on the verge of impeachment. Rather, Rousseff's political opponents are using the charges as a pretext: She's extremely unpopular, for reasons totally unrelated to the charges, and her enemies are taking advantage to push her out.

This isn't so much about corruption as it is about politics — and these three numbers explain why.

352: the number of Brazilian members of Congress under investigation on corruption charges

Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is sworn in as the new chief of staff for embattled President Dilma Rousseff
Eduardo Cunha, looking at … something.
(Igo Estrela/Getty Images)

The reason we know Rousseff's impeachment isn't about the stated charges is clear: The people impeaching her are pretty damn corrupt themselves.

Out of Brazil's 594 members of Congress, 352 — about 60 percent — are under investigation or facing charges for corruption and other serious crimes, according to data collected by Transparencia Brasil and provided to the Los Angeles Times's Vincent Bevins.

Take Eduardo Cunha, for instance. Cunha is the former president of the Chamber of Deputies (the Brazilian equivalent of the US speaker of the House) and is widely seen as the mastermind of the current impeachment proceedings, having first leveled charges against Rousseff in December 2015. Those failed due to a lack of political support, but he ultimately pushed them through the chamber in mid-April.

But just a few 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. Prosecutors allege that Cunha took as much as $40 million in bribes and hid it in a Swiss bank account. He faces up to 184 years in prison if convicted.

In other words, Cunha is not exactly squeaky clean himself. What he is, though, is an opponent of Rousseff's: He's often referred to as her "nemesis" in the press.

So this isn't like Watergate, where a legislature was genuinely stunned by presidential misconduct. It's nigh impossible to imagine that a Congress full of corrupt people like Cunha would seriously believe Rousseff should lose her job solely because of her alleged number fudging.

Rather, the impeachment vote is a political attack on Rousseff's presidency. Rousseff's opponents want her gone, and they're using the charges as a pretext.

$5.3 billion: the amount of money stolen in a massive corruption scandal

Brazil protest Batman Rio
A Brazilian protester, dressed as the Batman, with a sign saying "Out Dilma."
(Steffen Stubager/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Despite the clear hypocrisy of the drive to impeach Rousseff, the Brazilian public mostly backs it. Polls consistently show that more than 60 percent of Brazilians support Rousseff's impeachment.

One big reason why: a $5.3 billion corruption scandal that occurred under her watch.

The scandal centers on Petrobras, Brazil's massive state-run oil company. In 2013, investigators uncovered an ongoing scheme, which had been running for about a decade, wherein Petrobras executives secretly created a cartel to coordinate bids on Petrobras contracts. They collaborated with Petrobras workers to systematically overcharge the company, then kept the excess profits for themselves. (They also gave some of the profits to those workers, as well as to some friendly politicians.)

The scope of the corruption scandal was mind-boggling: With an estimated $5.3 billion price tag, it's the the largest corruption scandal in the history of modern democracy — and it's still not clear that prosecutors have uncovered the full extent of the theft.

When the scandal went public in 2014, Brazilians were outraged. It played into Brazil's defining political issue: inequality. Ever since colonial times, Brazil has been dominated by wealthy elites who thought they could get away with anything — mostly because they usually did. Hence the huge percent of Brazil's members of Congress currently under investigation for corruption — many of whom, including Cunha, are being investigated on Petrobras-related charges.

The scandal exposed just how deep Brazil's corruption problems really were. It implicated the leaders of Brazil's largest state-owned company, its biggest construction firms, and political leaders from across the political spectrum. It exposed elite corruption on a level that, even in Brazil, was previously unimaginable. Millions of Brazilians have taken to the streets in protest, demanding Rousseff's resignation.

Interestingly, though, Rousseff herself was cleared of personal implication in the Petrobras scandal. Yet she's gotten the lion's share of the blame nonetheless.

That's because from 2003 to 2010, Rousseff was the chair of Petrobras's board. In other words, the scandal occurred under her watch — a seemingly damning indictment of her judgment and competence.

3.8 percent: How much Brazil's GDP declined in 2015

Brazilian Government Plans For Social Program Cuts Amid Recession (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The other key reason the senate voted to impeach Rousseff is Brazil's economy, which is currently a basket case.

Brazil grew rapidly under Rousseff's presidency and that of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, and millions were lifted out of poverty and into the middle class. But that growth was always unsustainable, as it was fueled by exports of commodities like soy, iron, and oil, which were quite expensive during the 2000s. When prices began to fall considerably around 2012, Brazil's economy fell, too.

To make matters worse, Rousseff had gone on a government spending spree. The deficit had increased from 2 percent of GDP in 2010 to 10 percent in 2015. Government debt now makes up 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 — with both negative trends set to continue this year. It's "the country's worst recession in 80 years (or maybe ever)," according to Brian Winter, a Brazil expert and vice president of the Americas Society and Council on the Americas.

So people aren't just furious at Rousseff for corruption. They believe, with good reason, that she's at least partially to blame for the country's current economic crisis.

The problem, however, is that for Brazil's government to start addressing its economic crisis seriously, the country needs some kind of stable leadership. And it's highly unlikely that Rousseff's ouster will actually help bring about any sort of political stability.

Here's why: Now that Rousseff has been suspended, Vice President Temer will take over, at least temporarily. But he's barred from running for elected office for eight years for violating campaign finance laws. What's more, the Supreme Court has ordered the House to investigate whether he should be impeached for aiding Rousseff's deficit-hiding scheme.

The next in line, Interim Chamber of Deputies President Waldir Maranhão, has announced he'll step aside. The next after him, Senate President Renan Calheiros, is under investigation on suspicion of taking Petrobras bribes.

So kicking out Rousseff could set off a down-the-line crisis, as it's not clear who's going to replace her in the long term. And as long as Brazilian politics is consumed by fights over leadership, it will be very, very hard to pass the kind of reforms needed to help combat its economic catastrophe.

Oh, and did I mention that Brazil is supposed to be hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio just a few months from now?