So was it a coup then?

Right-wing protests in 2015 loudly demanded Dilma’s ouster. The left consequently rallied around não vai ter golpe! – “there will be no coup!” With Dilma now impeached, protests resound to Fora Temer and Diretas Já! – “Temer Out” and “Direct Elections Now!” In turn, O Globo newspaper responded with an editorial Sunday (18/09) arguing that, in fact, new elections would be the real coup. Throwing around the word empties it of meaning. But the question remains, was it a coup?


O Globo‘s case rests on there being no legal provision for new elections. These would require a constitutional amendment, but since they would fall outside of the periodicity required for an election – “inscribed in stone” in Art. 60 of the 1988 Constitution – they would be illegitimate. New elections would require an institutional rupture – that is to say, a ‘coup’.

This is a transparent and facile attempt to appropriate a term used by the left. O Globo again: “They [the left] constructed the thesis of a ‘coup’ – a risible idea – but which ended up being treated abroad, as well as by PT sympathisers in the worlds of academia in the press, as something serious.” Clearly bitter at a less favourable international media narrative – which is to say, no longer reflexively echoing the domestic media – O Globo reached for inflated rhetoric to defend their fait accompli. It is worth noting here that defenders of the 1964 coup still refer to it as a ‘revolution’. So the Brazilian right has priors in appropriating left discourse to reactionary ends.

I personally have been reticent to use the term. This is partly because to do so invites unhelpful semantic debates. Does it matter if we call it a coup or something elese? ‘Coup’ serves a clear polemical purpose, constructing a line of continuity between ’64 and ’06, those dates signalling moments of elite revanchism following episodes of left-populist progress. But clearly they are different events in different historical contexts. As the right doesn’t tire of responding, “how can it be a coup: where are the tanks on the streets?”

Using the word golpe, absent military involvement, certainly has echoes of polemical use of ‘fascist’. Witness contemporary debates about the US Republican nominee: ‘Trump AND fascist’ returns over half-a-million results in 0.35s on Google. Does it matter? Either you agree with his politics or not, right? Well, the purpose of the term is to designate certain political acts or actors as beyond the pale. Unworthy of debating. Of course, appeals to fascism often function as a cynical appeal to lesser-evilism (Hillary Clinton, in this case). You should be wary of its use, even you don’t care about accuracy in political terminology. Moreover, the use of such political scare terms have a certain equivalence to the function of ‘evil’.

As Kenan Malik explains:

When we talk of an act as ‘evil’ we are not merely describing something particularly abhorrent or inhuman. We are making a claim about the boundaries of morality itself, trying to delineate the space within which it is possible to have a debate we can meaningfully define as about morality.

Calling Dilma’s impeachment a coup designates its active and tacit supporters both as beyond the realm of democratic acceptability. This relates to a third reason for reticence in its use: maybe we don’t know yet. What happens after the change in government will inform our view about the means used. Clearly, in this case, the means used were constitutional. How could that be outwith the boundaries of democratic legitimacy?

A coup d’etat is defined as a rapid change of government which removes one government by force and replaces it by another; it is usually carried out by a small number of people, who already have some power, such as army officers. However, the terms parliamentary coup or judicial coup – or juridical-mediatic coup as in Brazil – already have popular currency and social scientific legitimacy. This can be seen in the parliamentary or institutional coup of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay or the judicial coup in 2008 in Thailand. These are not unproblematic terms, but the concept is at least well-established.

But the lack of instantaneity to the Brazilian case makes it less self-evident. Coup in French, like golpe in Portuguese or Spanish, is best translated as a ‘blow’. But if it was a soft coup in Brazil, the case rests on it being a process. We must examine the sequence of events, not merely the legal detail or event of impeachment. Events must be reconstructed into a coherent narrative. It is only with the writing of history that a ‘soft coup’ can be established, precisely because it retains the accoutrements of legality and the absence of force. The left might have had sound propagandistic reasons for chanting não vai ter golpe as of March 2015, but the case had yet fully to reveal itself.

The situation in 2015

Prior to the right coalescing around impeachment as the best way to get rid of Dilma, there were proposals put to the TSE (Superior Electoral Tribunal) for cancelling the mandate of Dilma and Temer both, for falling afoul of campaign financing rules. This case was re-opened in October 2015.

The Monday night after Globo‘s editorial was published, the lower house was debating a bill regulating political campaigning, including criminalising so-called caixa dois practices. This refers to undeclared funds, often used for dodgy campaign financing. However, the first-secretary of the house, Beto Mansur, tried to modify the bill, granting amnesty to politicians from retroactive prosecution, effectively turning the bill into its opposite. The manoeuvre was quashed by deputies from left parties. But it’s worth remarking that Mansur was previously responsible for advancing the impeachment proceedings, including the use of tricks such as letting pro-impeachment deputies vote first, creating a critical mass in favour.

Whatever the legal arguments in any one of the cases against the deposed president, it’s clear those pursuing her were opportunist and hypocritical. The cancelling of the mandate due to irregularities in campaign finances would have been a juridical, as opposed to political, manoeuvre, because judged by a court. Impeachment, on the other hand would, only require congressional assent – hence being a political move. This proved the easier option, though in 2015 it was still unclear which tactic would be used.

Looking back from now to the moment Aécio Neves lost the presidential election in October 2014, it is apparent that the strategy would be the kitchen-sink approach. Rather than repeating here an account of the concatenation leading to impeachment, see Alfredo Saad-Filho’s essay in openDemocracy, which makes the intentionality and end-game apparent. In his view it was a coup: impeachment was just the means arrived at out of convenience.

In fact, given the ostensible coup’s legalistic integument, for it to warrant the term, it would require us to see the sequence of actions as regime change. Thus, to see successive PT governments as representing a regime. If not, then it is more of a changing of the guard. And however fishy the manoeuvring or flimsy the evidence, the whole affair would look more like court intrigue. British readers might profit from an analogy: is this the Parliamentary Labour Party trying to oust Corbyn by any means necessary, or is this more like the plotting undertaken by ‘Brownites’ against Blair? Questions of political substance matter.

Were the PT governments radical challenges to the oligarchy? Was the government intolerable to financial interests? Did it present a geopolitical challenge to hegemonic interests? Was ‘Lulismo’ a new regime in Brazil? The answer to these must be a (qualified) ‘no’. Lula implemented relatively orthodox macroeconomic management, surfing the commodity super-cycle and redistributing where possible. Dilma’s first administration was more interventionist, but still remained fairly orthodox. To take one example, Brazil’s current Finance Minster under Temer is Henrique Meirelles: he was appointed president of Brazil’s central bank by Lula, and headed up coordination of investment for the Olympics under Dilma until 2015. Even the idea of Brazil, along with the BRICS, as dangerous counterpole to the US feels less credible given the country’s economic situation in recent years.


So was the impeachment and Temer’s subsequent assumption of power merely an illegitimate power grab, a kind of court intrigue, rather than a ‘coup’? This wasn’t the old establishment deposing a radical left government, after all. But perhaps the question lies not with the (moderate) PT but with its (rightist) usurpers?

The Temer government has sought immediately to privatise industries, implement austerity and roll back civil liberties and social rights. Whatever you may think of any of of these policies, Temer is clearly implementing an agenda which has repeatedly been defeated at the ballot box since 2002, and as recently as 2014. More, it looks like attempting to revert to a status quo ante of oligarchical rule, reversing the limited gains of PT adminstrations. No matter that under the PT the rich were allowed to get richer. By 2014 the situation had become intolerable for capitalist interests and ‘their’ representatives in politics and the media.

The Temer government has also carried out actions which make the dodgy impeachment look even dodgier. For example, immediately after impeachment, the government legalised the innocuous fiscal manoeuvring for which Dilma was impeached. This, combined with evidence of plotting – to remove Dilma as a means of halting the Lava Jato anti-corruption investigations and satiating the baying crowd – makes the sequence of events undoubtedly look like an institutional coup. If you read Portuguese, it’s worth re-reading the transcripts of the recordings of Sérgio Machado with PMDB politicians. The plotting to use impeachment as a means to halt anti-corruption – including claims of guaranteed assent of the judiciary, media and armed forces – is truly flabbergasting.

One final objection to this conclusion: one could argue Dilma’s second government, in an attempt to appease her accusers, also began implementing an agenda not voted for. Fair enough. But this is a critique the left can make; it is unclear why conservatives or neoliberals should balk at Dilma’s tack to right, be it the anti-terrorism law or austerity measures. It is highly opportunist for it to be used by her right-wing and neoliberal accusers (not that this has stopped them before).

Let us then re-articulate the elements which, thus entrained, combine to make this a soft coup:

  1. The evident desire by the right to get Dilma out from the moment the 2014 election results came in
  2. The promiscuous use of any tactic or justification that might work: Lava Jato, street protests, violating campaign financing rules, illegal fiscal manoeuvres
  3. The foregrounded anti-corruption arguments, which were swiftly exposed post-impeachment as mere scheming to relieve popular and media pressure on the corrupt themselves
  4. Impeachment based on unsubstantiated claim of pedaladas, subsequently legalised by the new government once impeachment confirmed
  5. Impeachment proceedings citing the ‘sum of her works’ when that can only be done by the people, through the ballot box
  6. Implementation of neoliberal reforms rejected at ballot box post-impeachment

Ultimately, it is a parliamentary coup, for it uses formal, legalistic and and seemingly legitimate means for ends which are the opposite of that. It is the use of the tools of bourgeois democracy against democracy itself. What occurred, by hook and by crook, was the turning of the letter of the law against the spirit of the law. A constitutionally massaged anti-democratic rupture.

The demand now, for direct elections, is unlikely to succeed. It would require congressional turkeys to vote for Christmas. They have proved themselves well adept at avoiding the axe. But demands can serve purposes other than simply achieving aims. It is essential for the left in reclaiming the streets, divesting itself of any partisan defence of PT governments, and assuming the moral force of democracy.

Direct Elections Now!

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