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Brazil's Rousseff faces threat of coalition implosion

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 06:39

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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff battled Monday to contain what looked like the imminent collapse of her coalition and the loss of crucial congressional votes she needs to fight off impeachment.

[BRASILIA] Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff battled Monday to contain what looked like the imminent collapse of her coalition and the loss of crucial congressional votes she needs to fight off impeachment.

The country's largest party, the PMDB, is set to decide Tuesday whether to quit the leftist leader's government, but top figures indicated it was only a matter of how to make their exit.

"There's already a large majority in favor of breaking with the government," said a spokesman for party leader Michel Temer - who is also Rousseff's vice president and the man who will take power if she is impeached.

Ms Rousseff, who is reeling from a deep recession, a spiralling corruption scandal, mass protests and the mounting push to impeach her, met PMDB ministers Monday to try to convince them to stay.

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But the vice president's spokesman told AFP the only issue the PMDB still needed to settle was a proposed deadline for cabinet members to leave the party if they want to keep their jobs.

"They would have until April 12, and then any PMDB members who have a job in the administration would quit," he said.

The PMDB, a massive centrist party, has always been an awkward partner for Ms Rousseff's left-wing Workers' Party (PT), which needs its votes but has little in common with it ideologically.

There are currently seven PMDB ministers and 69 of the 513 members of the lower house of Congress, where Ms Rousseff is struggling to come up with the one-third vote she needs to block impeachment.

If it quits, other parties could follow suit, including the Progressive Party (PP), which has 49 deputies.

The impeachment case, currently before a congressional committee tasked with making a recommendation to the full lower house, is built on accusations that Ms Rousseff manipulated the government's accounts to boost public spending and hide the severity of the recession.

The Brazilian bar association was due to file a new impeachment request Monday, expanding the case to include accusations of obstructing justice in the investigation into a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras.

Mr Temer, 75, has conspicuously not come to Ms Rousseff's defense as the impeachment storm swirls.

Instead, he met last Monday with opposition leader Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost the 2014 election to Ms Rousseff, to discuss the future of the nation.

Since the beginning of March, millions of Brazilians - especially those skewing whiter, wealthier and better-educated - have marched to demand Ms Rousseff's ouster.

Her backers have held their own demonstrations, with much smaller crowds. A new rally "in defense of democracy" has been called for Thursday.

With her coalition splintering, Ms Rousseff called her predecessor and mentor, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), to the rescue, naming him her chief of staff.

But the move blew up in her face when a judge released a wire-tapped phone call suggesting that the appointment - which would have given Lula ministerial immunity - was really aimed at saving the ex-president from arrest on pending money-laundering charges linked to the Petrobras scandal.

The episode caused a new wave of anti-Rousseff protests and has driven the country's executive and judiciary branches into a standoff.

The full Supreme Court is expected to issue a definitive ruling on Mr Lula's appointment sometime next week, a spokesman said.

Mr Lula said he had heard "with sadness" that the PMDB was on the verge of leaving the ruling coalition.

"We need to talk it over with them," he told journalists, announcing he would fly to Brasilia to meet Mr Temer.

Meanwhile, Ms Rousseff's opponents are seeking to solidify the two-thirds majority needed in the lower house - 342 votes in all - to open an impeachment trial in the Senate.

If Ms Rousseff is impeached, she would be suspended and the upper house, overseen by the president of the Supreme Court, would decide her fate, with a two-thirds majority - 54 of 81 - needed to force her from office.

Ms Rousseff last week condemned the "fascist methods" of opponents seeking her removal and said the roiling crisis would leave a "scar" if not resolved democratically.

AFP

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