Brazil president warns of 'putsch' ahead of impeachment vote

[BRASILIA] Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said Wednesday she was the victim of a coup as her allies horse-traded frantically for enough votes to ride out an impeachment drive.

"Impeachment is a putschist process that is out of line with the country's trajectory since returning to democracy," Ms Rousseff said in a speech in Brasilia, referring to the end of Brazil's two decades military dictatorship in 1985.

A months-long crisis reducing Latin America's biggest country to political paralysis ahead of the Rio Olympics deepened Tuesday when Ms Rousseff's Workers' Party lost its main coalition partner, the centrist PMDB.

That left Ms Rousseff isolated as she tries to survive impeachment in Congress against a background of punishing recession and a corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras that has snared a cross-section of the country's elite.

A poll Wednesday from Ibope showed approval for Ms Rousseff's government remains around record lows of 10 per cent, while her personal approval rating was 14 per cent.

Ms Rousseff faces impeachment over allegedly illegal budgetary manipulations to cover the extent of Brazil's recession during her re-election campaign in 2014.

According to Ms Rousseff, she has broken no laws that meet the standards for impeachment, meaning that the campaign against her "is a coup."

The potentially lengthy process is already underway in a preliminary commission and the lower house of Congress could vote as early as mid-April on whether to send the case to the Senate for full trial.

To impeach Ms Rousseff, 342 out of 513 deputies must vote in favor. If Ms Rousseff managed to get 171 votes or more, she would defeat the measure, but it could also fail through abstentions or deputies not attending.

Until only recently Ms Rousseff seemed likely to narrowly prevail, despite her unpopularity and the intense hostility of opponents in the increasingly divided country.

With the PMDB's exit, the math gets far dicier, analysts say.

"The likelihood of impeachment has greatly increased," said political analyst Michael Freitas Mohallem of the Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro.

Loyalists put a brave face on Tuesday's debacle, with Chief of Staff Jaques Wagner calling it an opportunity to "renew" the government.

Put another way, the government now has seven ministries and some 580 other posts to hand out and is ready to horse-trade for support.

Ms Rousseff hopes her main weapon will be her predecessor in the presidency, the charismatic and authoritative Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - a renowned wheeler and dealer.

However, after being accused in the Petrobras corruption scandal, Mr Lula has also become a focal point for opposition attacks, making it questionable whether he helps or hinders Ms Rousseff more.

The strategy will be to look beyond the PMDB to the multitude of smaller parties in the fractious Congress and to individual deputies, regardless of their affiliation.

A Rousseff aide told O Globo newspaper Wednesday that even with its heavy presence in the cabinet, the PMDB would only have delivered 25 to 30 votes against impeachment.

Now the aim is to entice new allies to come up with 80 anti-impeachment votes, the aide said.

At the same time Ms Rousseff needs to keep together the rest of her coalition, with most attention being focused on the PP or Partido Popular, which has said it will announce its position within days.

A parallel strategy, analysts say, is to persuade deputies to abstain.

"They're all on their computers counting votes, trading votes for jobs and ministries," Mr Mohallem said.

A cross-party commission is hearing arguments and is expected to make its recommendation on impeachment on or about April 12. Ms Rousseff's defense is already expected to wind up on Monday.

The lower house would then debate and could vote between April 14-16, according to a preliminary estimate of the timetable.

If deputies do send the case onto the Senate, then a process possibly taking months begins. A two-thirds vote would again be needed to depose Ms Rousseff.

While Congress fights, ordinary Brazilians are becoming increasingly angry over the dismal economy and the constant drip of corruption revelations.

Demonstrations both against and in favor of Ms Rousseff and Mr Lula are multiplying, with Workers' Party activists planning to hold rallies in major cities Thursday.

On Wednesday, Ms Rousseff supporters rallied in Brasilia, where the president was opening a new phase of the government's social housing program known as My House, My Life.

She accused opponents of stirring up "hatred between Brazilians".

Ms Rousseff cancelled a trip to Washington for a nuclear safety summit on Thursday and Friday, the state news agency said. A government spokesman said that in "the current political context," it was not advisable.


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