Latin America was synonymous with political instability throughout the 20th century. While the spectre of military coups faded in the 1980s, yet political crises — like the one now engulfing Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff —still plague the region.
If Rousseff loses her looming impeachment battle over claims of illegal accounting, she will be the 18th elected Latin American president since 1985 (excluding Haiti) forced to leave office by means other than the ballot box. And the second Brazilian president since Fernando Collor de Mello resigned under threat of impeachment in 1992.
When the military stays in the barracks and presidential ousters follow the constitutional rules, it is tempting to see this as a good sign for democracy. After all, if corrupt presidents are being impeached for misdeeds, doesn’t it show that checks and balances are working?
Consider recent events in Guatemala. When president Otto Pérez Molina was caught in the middle of a corruption scandal uncovered in 2015 by the International Commission Against Impunity, political analysts applauded his stunning resignation. They touted his downfall as a sign of a ‘democratic spring’ in Central America.
More broadly, one major concern about presidential systems that entail fixed terms is their rigidity — and hence their vulnerability to regime breakdown when presidents fail to govern effectively. Presidential crises could instead be viewed as a positive sign that these systems are adopting “parliamentary traits”.
Yet reasons for skepticism remain. First, the succession process is key. Even if the charges used to remove presidents are valid, how succession is carried out affects a country’s rule of law and the quality of democracy.
Latin American presidents are notorious for decrying the politicisation and corruption of the courts and legislatures — only to pack them with their own loyal supporters. Similarly, legislatures often bypass vice presidents and replace ousted leaders with members of the opposition.
Indeed, in Latin America, most presidential ousters look more like partisan affairs. Of the region’s 17 ousted leaders, only six successors were the vice presidents — and most of those cases were not from the same party as the president.
Replacing Rousseff is likely to be particularly fraught. Brazil’s entire line of succession is under investigation for corruption, with the nation already seething over a harsh recession.
The Supreme Federal Tribunal recently ruled that Vice President Michel Temer, whom Rousseff alleges has masterminded the conspiracy against her, must face separate impeachment charges.
The next in line, the speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, is implicated in a scandal involving Petrobras, the state-owned oil giant, and was just named in the Panama Papers leak exposing offshore financial deals.
He is charged with taking up to $40m in bribes. The Senate president, who is third in line, is also deeply implicated in the Petrobras scandal, as well as other corruption charges.
Though Rousseff was narrowly re-elected in 2014, the only plausible option seems to be new elections. But which sort of candidate would prosper in this environment? Anti-system, anti-establishment politicians — think Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela — are not known for their commitment to democracy or the rule of law.
The second concern hinges on basic checks and balances. As envisioned by The Federalist Papers, this system was designed primarily to slow things down and serve as a deterrent.
So, even if a president is forced out for a valid reason, we should still be concerned that institutions are failing to prevent political corruption in the first place.
Consider, for example, the role of the judiciary: To be an effective deterrent to corruption and other political crimes, the courts must be fully independent from politicians.
Yet before 2012, when the Supreme Federal Tribunal under Chief Justice Jaoquim Barbosa began to assume a more activist role, most Brazilians had a justly cynical view of their judicial system, neatly captured by the maxim: “The police arrest; the courts set free.”
There is every reason to suspect that the same elites under investigation for corruption also assumed that they could act with impunity. Looking forward, strengthening accountability in Brazil and elsewhere must ultimately be about convincing elites that committing political crimes is too risky. In fully consolidated democracies, checks and balances should work to discourage bad behaviour — not sporadically sanction it afterward.
Recent history also suggests that the negative effects of presidential crises in Latin America rarely remain exclusive to the executive branch.
Most end up pulling other important political institutions into their vortex. Polarization and decreasing public trust increases along the way.
This holds true with the current Brazilian crisis, in which more than 50% of all Congress members are facing corruption charges.
Judge Sergio Moro, the celebrated lead prosecutor in the Petrobras scandal, has recently come under scathing attack for his controversial decision to release wiretapped conversations between Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The key question is whether ousting elected presidents increases or decreases the credibility of other institutions. If the former, a virtuous cycle begins. If the latter, a vicious cycle prevails. Unfortunately, the trajectory of other Latin American countries, where presidents were forced from power, does not bode well for Brazil.