Brazil President faces fading chances to maintain power

The 367-137 lower house vote in favor of impeachment Sunday sent the issue to the Senate, where 45 of the 81 senators have stated they will vote to hold an impeachment trial.

If Dilma Rousseff is suspended, Vice President Michel Temer would temporarily take over. (Photo: AP)
English 18/04/2016 13:36 AP Actualizada 13:36

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Monday appeared on the verge of losing office after a congressional vote to impeach her and signs emerged that her support was slipping in the Senate, which will decide whether to remove her amid a political and economic crisis.

The 367-137 lower house vote in favor of impeachment Sunday sent the issue to the Senate, where 45 of the 81 senators have stated they will vote to hold an impeachment trial, according to local reports.

If a majority there votes to put Rousseff on trial, she'd be suspended while Vice President Michel Temer temporarily takes over.

Under the complicated guidelines of the impeachment process, it could be about 40 days before that Senate vote is cast. And an eventual trial and final vote could take months.

Workers' Party congressman Jose Guimaraes, the government's leader in the lower house, told reporters that he met with the president and "it's impressive in what high spirits she is."

Guimaraes said he and the other close confidants of Rousseff at Monday's meeting reassured her of their loyalty and said the government's strategy would be to "hold up the coup in the Senate."

The lower chamber vote worsens the confusion over the country's political landscape as Brazil, already reeling from a sharp economic recession and a massive corruption scandal, prepares to host the Olympic Games in August.

The impeachment vote has deeply divided Brazilians, tens of thousands of whom demonstrated in front of Congress and in cities nationwide during the vote.

Many hold Rousseff responsible for everything from the devastating recession to chronic high taxes and poor public services. At the same time, a broad swath of the population attributes its rise from poverty to her Workers Party and decried the vote as anti-democratic.

"I'm happy because I think Dilma had to go, but I'm also both sad that it came to this and also really worried that the next president could be even worse," said Patricia Santos, a 52-year-old small business owner who was the demonstrators outside Congress. "I quiver to think what awaits us next."

Neither Rousseff nor Temer have yet reacted publicly to the vote.

The impeachment proceedings against Rousseff are based on accusations she used illegal accounting tricks to shore up her flagging support through public spending.

Rousseff says previous administrations used such fiscal maneuvers without repercussions. She insists the accusations are a flimsy excuse by Brazil's traditional ruling elite to grab power back from her left-leaning party, which has ruled the country for 13 years.

Solicitor General Jose Eduardo Cardozo said after the vote that Rousseff would fight impeachment in the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil's highest court.

But analysts were skeptical that she can hold on to power, noting her spectacular failure to win the support even of parties that had long been part of her governing coalition.

Editorials in Brazil's top newspapers highlighted the danger posed by the political instability.

The Estado de S. Paulo newspaper warned of "the threat of strikes and daily demonstrations." Folha de S. Paulo urged speed in resolving the problem, adding, "The crisis is far from over."

The political standoff has dragged on for months, hamstringing efforts to respond to the country's worst recession in decades and a corruption scandal centered on the state-run Petrobras oil company that has entangled political and business leaders - though not Rousseff herself.

Sunday's vote came about 24 years after the lower house opened impeachment proceedings against Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil's first democratically elected president after more than two decades of military rule. Collor faced corruption allegations and ended up resigning before the conclusion of his trial in the Senate.

While their alleged misdeeds were different, Rousseff ultimately made the same political mistakes that Collor did, said Luciano Dias, a Brasilia-based political consultant.

"She was arrogant with Congress for a long time and her economic policies were just wrong," he said.

Rousseff, a one-time guerrilla fighter who was tortured under the military dictatorship, was picked by charismatic former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed him - becoming Brazil's first woman president. But seven years of galloping economic growth under Silva began to flag after she took office in 2011, and she only narrowly won re-election in 2014.

Her popularity has plunged in step with the economy, and opinion polls suggest most Brazilians support her ouster, though many have reservations about those in line to replace her.

Temer, the vice president, has been implicated in the Petrobras case and also signed off on the some of the same allegedly illegal fiscal maneuvers Rousseff used.

The second in line to replace Rousseff, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Eduardo Cunha, has been charged with taking US$5 million in bribes in the Petrobras scheme.

With the country's leadership besmirched by corruption, calls for general elections have been growing. A Rousseff spokesperson acknowledged that her team was examining the possibility of calling for elections - a move which has no constitutional basis, although it appears to enjoy considerable public support.

Gerivaldo Oliveira, a taxi driver in Brasilia, said he would applaud such an initiative.

"I want to see all the corrupt politicians in jail," he said. "Brazil needs a clean slate, otherwise we're lost."