Monday, April 18, 2016

Dilma Rousseff Is Impeached by Brazil’s Lower House of Congress
New York Times
APRIL 17, 2016

BRASÍLIA — Brazilian legislators voted on Sunday night to approve impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the nation’s first female president, whose tenure has been buffeted by a dizzying corruption scandal, a shrinking economy and spreading disillusionment.

After three days of impassioned debate, the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, voted to send the case against Ms. Rousseff to the Senate. Its 81 members will vote by a simple majority on whether to hold a trial on charges that the president illegally used money from state-owned banks to conceal a yawning budget deficit in an effort to bolster her re-election prospects. That vote is expected to take place next month.

Those pressing for impeachment had to win the support of two-thirds of the 513 deputies in the lower house; the decisive 342nd vote for impeachment happened at about 10:10 p.m. Eastern time. The final vote was 367 for impeachment, 137 against and 7 abstaining. Two deputies did not vote.

If the Senate accepts the case, Ms. Rousseff will step down temporarily while it deliberates her fate. Vice President Michel Temer, a constitutional law scholar and seasoned politician, will assume the presidency.

Given the larger-than-expected margin of deputies voting for impeachment, some political analysts said the Senate was likely to remove Ms. Rousseff from office, a ruling that would require a two-thirds majority.

“Politicians know how to read society pretty well, and they can sense that the people want her out,” said Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Ms. Rousseff can still appeal to the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil’s highest court, though it has rejected previous motions to have the impeachment measure dismissed.

The chamber’s decision to impeach Ms. Rousseff less than halfway through her second term provoked shouts of joy among the thousands of protesters who had gathered in the capital and in cities across the country, but also cries of treachery from her supporters.

Weeping as she stood amid the throngs rallying in support of the president, Gabriela Correia, 22, a customer service representative, said she was disgusted that so many deputies, some of them notoriously corrupt, had voted against Ms. Rousseff. “I want to make clear that I’m not here to defend a politician, but to protect our democratic political system,” she said. “My heart is aching.”

Some political analysts said they worried that the move to impeach Ms. Rousseff would cause lasting damage to Brazil’s young democracy, re-established in 1985 after two decades of military dictatorship.

“This is a coup, a traumatic injury to Brazil’s presidential system,” said Pedro Arruda, a political analyst at the Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo. “This is just pretext to take down a president who was elected by 54 million people. She doesn’t have foreign bank accounts, and she hasn’t been accused of corruption, unlike those who are trying to impeach her.”

Although legal experts and political analysts are divided, many have expressed concern over the basis of the impeachment drive. They note that the budgetary sleight of hand that Ms. Rousseff is accused of employing to address the deficit has been used by many elected officials, though not on so large a scale.

“It’s putting a very large bullet in Brazilian democracy,” said Lincoln Secco, a professor of history at the University of São Paulo. “This will set a very dangerous precedent for democracy in Brazil, because from now on, any moment that we have a highly unpopular president, there will be pressure to start an impeachment process.”

The vote to impeach is a crushing defeat for Ms. Rousseff and her Workers’ Party, a former band of leftist agitators who battled the nation’s military rulers in the 1980s and who swept to power in 2002 with the election of one of the group’s founders, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to the presidency.

Mr. da Silva, a skillful politician who endeared himself to both rich and poor, presided over heady economic growth and a generous expansion of social welfare benefits that helped lift millions of Brazilians out of abject poverty.

He also moved to strengthen the government’s control of key industries like petroleum. That set the stage for abuses at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, that would later ensnare scores of the nation’s political and business elite in a scheme that funneled kickbacks into campaign coffers.

Barred from running for a third term, he anointed Ms. Rouseff as his successor, and she easily won election in 2010.

A former Marxist guerrilla, Ms. Rousseff had never before held elected office, and critics say her lack of political skills hampered her ability to work with opposition members in Congress as well as key figures in her governing coalition.

In 2014, she was re-elected by a thin margin after an especially divisive campaign.

As the economy went into a tailspin and a huge corruption scandal took down once-untouchable political figures, Ms. Rousseff was abandoned by many of her allies, giving momentum to an impeachment initiative conceived by her rivals.

“When things started going wrong, she was unable to get the situation under control, and her lack of flexibility and stubbornness made things worse,” said Mathieu Turgeon, a political scientist at the University of Brasília. “All of this has now caught up with her.”

The impeachment drive has been polarizing, spurring raucous street protests, sundering friendships and provoking widespread anxiety over the potential impact to Brazil’s democracy.

Ms. Rousseff and her supporters have likened the impeachment drive to a slow-rolling coup by her political rivals, among them Mr. Temer, her vice president, who last month joined those calling for her impeachment.

The recent fortunes of Brazil, once an economic powerhouse of the developing world, have gone from bad to worse, with the economy expected to contract at least 3.5 percent for a second year in a row. Millions of Brazilians have lost their jobs since the days of double-digit growth, fueled in part by China’s hunger for commodities.

In recent months, her once-favorable approval ratings have dipped below 8 percent.

“This is a government that has lost legitimacy, credibility and the ability to govern,” said Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a research group in Washington. “It’s a terrible situation.”

Although Ms. Rousseff is not accused of corruption, the Petrobras scandal has implicated important members of her party, including Mr. da Silva. He is being investigated over allegations that he and his foundation received the equivalent of $7.8 million in services and lecture fees from construction companies seeking government contracts.

The unfolding scandal, known as Operação Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, has riveted Brazilians, as prosecutors have released details of how Petrobras funneled millions of dollars into the political campaigns of Workers’ Party politicians and their allies.

“The impeachment is on relatively weak constitutional grounds, but at the end of the day, this is a vote on the massive corruption probe, deep recession and a series of other issues that have plagued this administration,” said Christopher Garman, a Brazil analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.

Ms. Rousseff is the second Brazilian leader to be impeached since 1992, when Fernando Collor de Mello, facing huge protests over an influence-peddling scandal, resigned moments before the Senate was to vote on his ouster.

Ms. Rousseff’s predicament is somewhat different. Unlike Mr. Collor de Mello, she has not been accused of self-enrichment, and despite her sagging popularity, only 61 percent of Brazilians support impeachment, down from 68 percent last month, according to a survey by the polling firm Datafolha.

Then there is the question of who and what comes next. Vice President Temer, a senior member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, will have to grapple with political and economic challenges.

He also faces possible impeachment over the same allegations lodged against Ms. Rousseff, as well as accusations that he was involved in an illegal ethanol-buying scheme.

Next in line for the presidency after Mr. Temer is Eduardo Cunha, the powerful leader of the lower house, who has been a driving force behind Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment. An evangelical Christian who is fond of using his Twitter account to spread biblical verse, Mr. Cunha is accused of using a Swiss bank account to conceal $40 million in bribes.

“People are fed up with the mismanagement and economic mistakes of Dilma, and the corruption and arrogance of the Workers’ Party, but no one feels any optimism for what might come next,” said Raul Juste Lores, the editor at large for Folha de S.Paulo, a leading Brazilian newspaper.

As tens of thousands of people gathered outside the National Congress on Sunday to express their support for or against impeachment, some celebrated by setting off fireworks, while others said there were no winners in the day’s vote.

Among them was Stephany Machado, 22, a Portuguese teacher who had made the 16-hour trip by bus from São Paulo. Although she said she was not a supporter of the Workers’ Party, she worries about the long-term damage that impeachment could inflict on democracy in Brazil.

“Dilma is president through the power of our votes, and what they are trying to do is remove her from power in an anticonstitutional way,” she said. “We can’t give this up without a fight.”

Paula Moura contributed reporting from Brasília, and Vinod Sreeharsha from Rio de Janeiro.

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