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Opinion: Brazil Poised on Verge of Unstable Equilibrium

In this column, Fernando Cardim de Carvalho, economist and professor at the Federal University of Río de Janeiro, looks at the current political situation in Brazil and argues that the country finds itself in an impasse, with no political force apparently strong enough, or even interested in finding a better and more promising alternative policy strategy.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 22 2015 (IPS) - As the political situation in Brazil appears to be reaching a state of unstable equilibrium, or more bluntly, as it is transformed from instability to impasse, the economy continues to deteriorate.

The sharpening of political conflicts that could lead to an outright collapse of the economy seems to have been attenuated by the shift on Apr. 7 of effective political power from President Dilma Rousseff to Vice-President Michel Temer.

Fernando Cardim de Carvalho

Fernando Cardim de Carvalho

Temer was successful in bringing Renan Calheiros, the chairman of the Federal Senate, back to the government camp, in a power-sharing agreement meant to isolate the chairman of the House, Eduardo Cunha, who has assumed a much more radical stance. The arrangement has worked so far.

The pressure on the President to resign or on the appropriate bodies to give cause to initiate impeachment processes seems to have reached its limit. Popular opposition to the federal administration, which has its stronghold in Sao Paulo – as shown in mass demonstrations in March and April and most recently on Aug. 16 – has not seen the snowball growth its leaders expected.

In sum, positions seem to have been hardened as a measure of political accommodation has been reached, with the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) taking the lead on the side of government, and the formal opposition to government, including the nominally leading opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), rallying to the side of Eduardo Cunha, still their best hope on the way to an impeachment procedure.

Street demonstrations at this point seem to be unable to change this picture. Still, it should be noted that only the opposition has been able to organise large demonstrations. Attempts by pro-government groups to do the same in favour of the government have been few and largely unsuccessful.

In this context, as expected, the Brazilian economy continues to deteriorate. The contractionary impact of fiscal retrenchment has been greater than anticipated because not many people can foresee what will come next. In fact, no one can, even if announced measures will in fact be implemented while current difficulties, including fiscal difficulties, grow further.

The federal government was not able to pass the contractionary measures it argued to be essential, thus creating a ‘Catch 22’ situation in which one expects the success of the government to be very bad for the country but its failure to be even worse. Many economists are predicting a fall in 2015 GDP close to two percent, postponing chances of recovery until at least 2017.

“[Brazil] finds itself at an impasse. No political force seems to be strong enough, or even interested in finding a better and more promising alternative policy strategy”
If this contraction actually happens, it will be one the most serious recessions in recent history, much worse than what happened in 2008 and 2009.

The reasons for this are complex and the government is partly correct to point to the worsening of the external scenario. China can no longer carry Brazil forward. The recovery of the U.S. economy is weak and volatile. Europe is unable to overcome its own fossilised views on the virtues of austerity, causing the whole area to limp around.

Of course, this excuse only goes so far. Many analysts had called the attention of government authorities to the fact that growth during President Lula da Silva’s two terms in office (2003-2011) would vanish in the event that China lost its breath, as has actually happened.

The country lost the opportunity to make the investments, particularly in infrastructure, which could have increased its productive capacity. Efficient industrial policies should have been consistently implemented to that end, public investment should have been expanded, and consistent exchange rate policies should have been sought to change the picture of overvaluation that has been killing local manufacturing, on and off, since the Real Plan was implemented in 1994.

Practically nothing of this was effectively done. Investment plans were announced that had no consequence, local manufacturers became importers on an increasing scale, and roads, ports and energy production fell behind needs, while the government presented policies to increase household indebtedness to expand consumption as a successful combination of economic and social policies.

In the last two years of Rousseff’s first term (2011-2014), these policies were not even successful in increasing growth rates and GDP stalled as the government appealed more and more to tricks, particularly accounting tricks, and the distribution of favours to politically-connected sectors to try to revive the economy.

To a large extent, the turn to austerity was motivated by the failure to revive the economy, which doubled the bet on mistaken policies. Austerity measures in a shrinking economy can only accelerate the fall. But the dissolution of the political power of the president tripled the bet.

No one can believe that the president has the power to effectively pursue an alternative policy path. In fact, if the alternative to austerity is going back to what she did in her first term, the president will not find any supporters, except, perhaps, in her fast-shrinking number of hard-core believers.

So the country finds itself at an impasse. No political force seems to be strong enough, or even interested in finding a better and more promising alternative policy strategy. The more radical opponents – the Workers’ Party (PT) and the PSDB – got lost in a ‘blame game’, trying to pin down which of two presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso or Lula, had been worse.

None of them seems to have anything to offer. PMDB does not deal in wholesale strategies, it is more interested in retailing. Given the steep loss of trust in the PT or its leaders, including Lula, the party seems to be excluded from any power arrangement to be designed in the near future (its perspectives for the long-term future are at a minimum very uncertain).

The situation of the PSDB is not much better, because all it has in its favour is the receding memory of the Cardoso period, in which much the same problems were as serious as they are now and the party was as incompetent in pointing to solutions as the PT is now.

In this situation, the PMDB stepped in. It reached some measure of political stability but it has no vision of where to take the economy. Given its structure as a federation of state leaderships, the PMDB deals better with favours than with strategies.

As happened under President José Sarney in the late 1980s, this may be enough – in the best of circumstances – to put the brakes on economic deterioration but not to guide its revival.

The country will survive, of course, as it has done in the past.  The problem is that Brazil has experience of unfortunately all too frequent low-quality political leadership, so even the optimistic analysts can only see hardship ahead. (END/COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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