This week, Brazil's lower house voted to impeach the country's president, Dilma Rousseff, on nebulous charges of fudging deficit numbers to gain reelection. While Rousseff has vowed to stand her ground, the motion now goes to the country's Senate, where it could very well be approved, and her tenure cut short.
In a way, that would be unfair, because Rousseff is far from being the dirtiest politician in Brazil. Indeed, she hasn't been a bad president, having mostly sought to continue her predecessor's reasonable policies of mild social spending financed by a relatively unregulated (at least for Latin America) economy.
Still, her fall could be the first step in a long-overdue movement to hold Brazil's political elite accountable, and stem corruption before it spreads like a weed.
Corruption is a recurring theme in Brazilian politics. Indeed, the majority of the members of Brazil's Congress are either facing charges or being investigated for corruption or related crimes.
That is not a typo. Here are the actual numbers:
Of the 513 members of the lower house in Congress, 303 face charges or are being investigated for serious crimes. In the Senate, the same goes for 49 of 81 members. [Los Angeles Times]
Even Rousseff's vice president, Michel Temer, who would succeed her in the case of an impeachment, is by some reckonings more corrupt and unpopular than she is.
Meanwhile, Brazil is in the throes of the biggest scandal in the country's history. Petrobras, Brazil's biggest, and state-owned, oil company, has been running a slush fund to bribe politicians for over a decade. While there's no clear evidence Rousseff knew about the bribery, her party, the Workers' Party, was shown to be involved, as was her predecessor, Lula da Silva, who has been indicted for corruption.
All of this, combined with a slowing economy and the growing rift between the country's haves and have-nots means Brazilian society is really angry. As a country with a plantation and colonial history, Brazil has often been ruled by a narrow, plutocratic elite. The country is plagued by poor infrastructure, poor public services, poor education, and rotten favelas. Even though the country is now a democracy, many Brazilians still feel disenfranchised. They feel that insiders, whether politicians, businessmen, or the media, control the system and rig it against the little guy.
Rousseff is taking the fall for this voter outrage, which is unfortunate for her, but good for her country.
The most precious ingredient in any political culture is accountability. Dirty politicians exist everywhere, but where accountability exists, corruption cannot metastasize. When leaders screw up, are they held accountable? In Brazil, the answer has too long been "no," which is what makes Rousseff's impeachment so potentially groundbreaking. It means Brazil is taking a groping step towards building a culture of accountability. And that's what it needs most.