Q: The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, was recently impeached due to alleged corruption. Are such charges common in Brazil's political system, and if so, why?
A: Developing and Latin American countries have long had problems with corruption, and the Brazilian political system has been rife with corruption for at least two major reasons. First, the significant power of governors allows them to run their states using patronage politics, which is essentially distributing state resources in exchange for political power and private gain. Second, the multi-party system — which consists of more than 20 parties currently serving in the legislature — and the way Brazil elects legislators create many opportunities for bartering for power and resources. Basically, corruption has existed for a long time, and Brazilians have always known this and historically been more or less resigned to it. Brazil's political system is unwieldy to say the least, and in many ways is tumultuous and more conducive to corruption than to getting things done.
It is somewhat of a surprise that people are being challenged for their corruption. It is probably hard to find completely untainted officials, so the ones bringing the charges are possibly as corrupt as the accused. The Workers' Party (PT), which is the impeached president's party, had a reputation for being the cleanest party, which has made the public particularly dismayed at the fact that it, too, is corrupt.
Q: Opportunistic or not, what circumstances led up to the impeachment?
A: This is a country with high inequality and poverty that is undergoing a severe economic recession. From around 2000–10, Brazil's economy boomed due to high demand for its commodities. During this time, Brazil's president, Inácio "Lula" da Silva used the windfall to support social programs to combat poverty. These programs significantly decreased extreme poverty and levels of inequality. This and the strong economy made Lula extremely popular such that he was basically able to name his successor in Dilma Rousseff.
As the commodity market tanked at the beginning of this decade, however, Brazil went into recession. This was bad in and of itself, but it also highlighted the fact that most of the gains for the underclass under Lula had accrued to the rural and not the urban poor. Dilma's popularity has been in freefall ever since the recession began. The persistence of this worst economic recession in at least a generation has created the opportunity for opponents of the PT to use a long-simmering corruption scandal to oust the president.
Q: Has the runup to the Olympics contributed to this corruption and impeachment, and could this have any effect on the games?
A: I do not think it happened because of the Olympics. This political turmoil may look more unusual than it actually is because of the heavy attention drawn to Brazil because of the Olympics. Once the Olympics have passed, I expect Brazil will muddle through either to scheduled elections in 2018 or to early elections if the interim president's party is also implicated in its own separate corruption scandal related to campaign fraud from the last election.
As to whether it could affect the games, that depends on those that actually run the games and whether the politics have made it harder to do their jobs. For example, does a government funding shortfall make for understaffed police and other public-safety personnel? There could be disruption from public protests related to the same economic problems that lie in the background of the political upheaval. In the runup to Brazil hosting the World Cup two summers ago in 2014, the urban middle- and lower-middle classes took the opportunity of global attention to protest their lack of opportunities, declining living standards, and a corrupt political class that was intent on spending billions on the World Cup instead of education and other social services. It is possible we could see this again.