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Brazil president faces fading chances to maintain power

Date of the Senate vote is not known, but it’s widely expected by the middle of next month.


 
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff attends a signing ceremony for land reform agreements, at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, April 1, 2016. A Brazilian Supreme Court justice was caught on tape calling the country's politics a "disaster" and saying the political system "doesn't have a minimum of democratic legitimacy," according to news reports Friday. The off-the-cuff remarks seem to echo the sentiment of many Brazilians who are fed up with Rousseff and her left-leaning Workers' Party. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff attends a signing ceremony for land reform agreements, at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, April 1, 2016.  (Eraldo Peres, AP)

BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Monday appeared on the verge of losing office after a congressional vote to impeach her and with seemingly slipping support in the Senate, which would vote on whether to remove the leftist leader amid a national political and economic crisis.

The 367-137 lower house vote in favour of impeachment Sunday sends the issue to the Senate. If a majority there votes to put Rousseff on trial, she’d be suspended while Vice-President Michel Temer temporarily takes over. The exact date of the Senate vote is not known, but it’s widely expected by the middle of next month.

Local news media report that 45 of the 81 senators have said they will vote to hold the impeachment trial.

The 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 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, but local news media suggested the vice-president was already putting together his team and sketching out potential policies.

“Now comes the hardest part,” the Folha de S. Paulo daily quoted Temer as telling aides in the vice-presidential palace following Sunday’s chaotic, six-hour-long vote.

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

Rousseff says previous administrations used such fiscal manoeuvrs without repercussions. She insists the accusations are a flimsy excuse for a “coup” 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 many analysts were skeptical she can hold on to power, noting her spectacular failure 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 daily warned of “the threat of strikes and daily demonstration.”

Folha de S. Paulo said 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 centred 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 impeachment 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 manoeuvrs Rousseff used.

The second in line to replace Rousseff, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Eduardo Cunha, has been charged with taking $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.”

Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield reported this story in Brasilia and AP writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Rio de Janeiro.


 
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