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Brazil lawmakers to start debate on Rousseff impeachment

Activists supporting the impeachment of President Dilma Roussef protest in front of the Supreme Court in Brasilia, on April 14, 2016
AFP

Brasília (AFP) – It could be the beginning of the end for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as lawmakers begin debating Friday whether to recommend her impeachment over alleged budgetary shenanigans.

A “yes” vote to move the case on to the Senate for a definitive ruling would be a stunning development deepening the woes of an angry, troubled and recession-plagued country gearing up to host the Olympics this summer. 

The lower house of Congress was to begin three days of debate Friday morning. The big vote is Sunday.

It promises to be one of the most dramatic chapters in Brazil’s young democracy, restored in 1985 after two decades of military dictatorship.

Until a few years ago Brazil was on a roll, with robust economic growth that made it the poster child for emerging economies bringing millions out of poverty in South America’s largest economy.

Now, amid a huge, separate corruption scandal and other woes, it is a mess.

Rousseff lost a last ditch effort in the early hours of Friday in the Supreme Court to block the impeachment proceedings.

Justices refused a request for an injunction against proceedings that the government lawyer called “Kafkaesque” and said amounted to denying Rousseff the opportunity to defend herself against allegations of illegally fudging government budget numbers to boost her re-election chances in 2014.

The 7-3 ruling in an emergency Supreme Court session paved the way for Sunday’s vote by the lower house of Congress, which is due to decide whether to recommend an impeachment trial.

Latest counts of voting intentions in the lower house by major Brazilian newspapers show the pro-impeachment camp either at, or on the verge of, the necessary two-thirds majority.

If the vote passes on Sunday, the Senate will have authority to open a trial against Rousseff. If the Senate finds her guilty with another two-thirds vote, she would be forced from office.

– Looking for escape –

The 68-year-old leftist leader’s grip on power is fast slipping, leaving Brazil in crisis at a time of major recession and less than four months before Rio de Janeiro hosts the Olympics.

Rousseff has been desperately trying to assemble support in the lower house to prevent the opposition amassing the 342 out of a total 513 votes they need to move the impeachment forward.

On Thursday, she launched a new line of defense, sending her government’s top lawyer, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, to file for the injunction. The government alleged procedural failings in the impeachment case, saying it had violated her right to a defense.

“Evidence unrelated to the case has been included in the process, such as matters related to President Dilma (Rousseff)’s previous term,” Cardozo said in the filing.

He called the impeachment drive “a truly Kafkaesque process in which the accused is unable to know precisely what she is accused of or why.”

Rousseff, who has vowed to go down fighting, also tried another tack by repeating an offer to forge a political compromise with opponents if deputies throw out impeachment on Sunday.

“The government will fight until the last minute of the second half… to foil this coup attempt,” she said in an interview published by various media outlets Thursday.

– Protest worries –

Several of the parties in Rousseff’s coalition have jumped ship, starting with the PMDB of her vice president, Michel Temer. Scores of lawmakers have since turned against Rousseff, saying they will vote for impeachment.

The number of lawmakers who will vote against her on Sunday reached 342, Estadao daily estimated in the latest count on its website. Folha daily had the number at 338.

If the Senate, in turn, votes to open an impeachment trial, Rousseff would be suspended from office for six months. Temer would step into her place while the impeachment process runs its course and would remain in office if she were ousted.

Rousseff has branded Temer a traitor. She says he is the leader of a “coup” against her along with the speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha.

Lawmakers who have yet to declare their position were facing fierce lobbying, including from Rousseff’s top ally and predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

But he, too, faces pressure: the courts have suspended his appointment as Rousseff’s chief of staff over a corruption case against him, linked to a huge graft scandal at state oil company Petrobras.

Protesters for and against Rousseff have called for demonstrations this weekend in Brasilia. Security forces have put up fences to protect government buildings from possible disturbances.

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