Nationwide marches demanding the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff are expected next month
Nationwide marches demanding the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff are expected next month

Calls are growing to impeach President Dilma Rousseff over a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal involving the state-run oil giant Petrobras.

While the country celebrates its annual Carnival, with the 2015 Samba Competition wrapping up in Rio de Janeiro, there have been a growing clamour on the web and in the streets, with millions of Brazilians asking for the impeachment of their president.

A petition on campaigning website Avaaz calling for the impeachment of the president, who was re-elected in October 2014, is gaining traction as the politician faces a major political crisis.

While the e-petition has already attracted around 2m signatures – just under 1% of Brazil's population of 200m – those calling for the impeachment of the president hope to attract over 5m signatories, or 2.5% of the population.

Recent polls show 44% of Brazilians say she is doing a "bad" or "very bad" job, while 77% of the 4,000 people interviewed said they believed Rousseff knew about the corruption in Petrobras.

"Impeachment of President Dilma," the e-petition reads, "To end corruption, misuse of public money, health scrap, roads, education, public safety and other(s)".

"The PT, Workers Party, represented today by President Dilma brought hardship to the nation. President Dilma, who was elected by the Brazilian people, is cheating us and is continuing the extravagant idealism of the PT," the petition, launched in May 2013, reads further.

"The [FIFA 2014] World Cup ate billions of dollars that could have been applied to health, education and infrastructure [projects]. We Brazilians are tired of this hypocrisy."

On Facebook, dozens of groups, boasting tens of thousands of members, have also appeared demanding Rousseff's removal from office; and there have also been calls for a day on national and international protests on 15 March, to demand the President's removal.

Opposition politicians are also publicly floating the possibility of impeaching the President.

"Of course there are possibilities that this could happen, because black swans happen. Nobody expected the 2013 protests in Brazil, and they happened. No one expected Brazil to lose 7-1 to Germany, but that happened too," explained Lucas de Aragão, partner at the Brazil-based political consulting firm, Arko Advice.

"Jokes apart, when you have a president whose popularity is low and there is a lack of political dialogue between government and the legislative, there is always a chance."

Petrobras scandal

It was during President Rousseff's chairmanship at the head of Petrobras for more than seven years before becoming president, that a multi-billion dollar scheme allegedly took place.

A police investigation claims that Petrobas executives approved inflated contracts to suppliers and subcontractors. In return, certain executives and directors received kickbacks.

The scheme, which was in operation during much of the past decade, has already made many victims, including Petrobras CEO Maria das Graças Foster and five members of the board of directors who were forced to resign earlier this month.

Additionally, some 150 executives and Petrobras directors have also been under investigation and so far, around 80 people have been charged with corruption, according to local officials.

But these factors will not "fatally undermine Rousseff's ongoing course correction in economic management," with only about a 20% chance of Rousseff impeachment, researched at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said.

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A long process

While the President is under pressure, she does not face an immediate risk of impeachment, Aragão believes.

"The idea of her impeachment is around because the opposition in Brazil has become more aggressive for the first time in the latest years, her popularity has plummeted and since Brazil has had an impeachment before (President Fernando Collor de Mello, in 1992), people tend to think that it is a natural process for an impeachment to occur."

"Truth be told, it is very premature to speak about Dilma's impeachment,"Aragão said, adding: "When people say there are grounds for impeachment, it is a very subjective point. It is an event that demands much more political breakdown from the government."

Many more variables would have to happen for a motion of impeachment to be triggered (see box).

First, Aragão explained Dilma's situation would have to worsen immensely for an impeachment process to be valuable.

"There would have to be an even lower climate of unpopularity, with millions of people in the streets in massive protests similar or bigger than the ones that occurred in 2013, and a strong, aggressive media campaign from the country's largest Brazilian media group, Globo, asking for her impeachment," Aragão added.

While he said it is possible the President could face even more unfavourable popularity, Aragão said the two other conditions are a long-shot away. For instance, despite having popularity rates in 1997 lower than Rousseff's today, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso kept his mandate for another five years after that.

"One thing is to be against Dilma, but it is another to be pro-impeachment. Globo have had no problem criticising Dilma in the past but they have not even hinted an ounce of support for her impeachment," he explained.

Secondly, the analyst said that around 80% of political actors in Brazil are against impeachment.

Aragão explained: "There are three major parties in Brazil: the PT, the PNDB, who are the coalition in power, and the opposition, the PSDB. The Presidents of the House and Senate are both (from the) PNDB, and the party would not benefit from an impeachment."

Finally, Aragão said the number of signatories on the Avaaz e-petition should be taken with a pinch of salt.

"Brazil is torn up socially," he explained. During last October's elections, the top layers of the social pyramid voted massively for Rousseff's opponent Aécio Neves, the lower classes voted for Rousseff, and the middle classes were torn between both candidates.

"The higher social classes, which hate Dilma, are those who have access to the Internet, and time on their hands. It wouldn't be a surprise to have 2m, 3m or even 5m signatures on Avaaz," Aragão said.

"The richer side of the population are clearly voting on Aecio's side, while the poorer are clearly voting for Rousseff. So it's easy to get carried away by these sign-ups."

The road to impeachment

While the impeachment process in Brazil is a much more political event than it is a judicial one, the road to impeachment is full of obstacles, as explained Lucas de Aragão, partner at the Brazil-based political consulting firm, Arko Advice.

  1. For the impeachment process to begin, any citizen can present to the Brazilian House of Representatives a requirement asking for President Rousseff's impeachment, with a legal reason to it, such as using illegal money for her campaign or directly involved in the Petrobras scandal
  2. The President of the House, Eduardo Cunha - who is part of the government's alliance but has criticised Dilma on several occasions in the past – would have to personally approve the requirement. Since 2010, there have been 14 requirements for impeachment, which have all been rejected by Cunha, who said last week: "I think speaking about impeachment at this point is irresponsible and we should not be doing so"
  3. If Cunha accepted the request, it would be submitted to the 513 Congressmen in the House of Representatives, who would have to vote its legitimacy. For the process to continue, two-thirds of the Congress would have to vote in favour, meaning a staggering 342 Congressmen would have to approve it
  4. Because Brazil is a bicameral parliament, two-thirds of the Senate, or 54 Senators, would then have to approve the process within 180 days; period during which the president would temporarily be out of the government
  5. Would the process be approved, Dilma would then be kick-out of the government