Brazil's president to play last cards in impeachment fight

Published Sun, Apr 3, 2016 · 11:25 PM

[RIO DE JANEIRO] It's make or break time for leftist Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's attempt to avoid impeachment - and for Brazil itself.

A months-long political crisis wrapped in a gargantuan corruption scandal and the worst recession for a generation starts coming to a boil this week.

On Monday, Rousseff's solicitor general, Jose Eduardo Cardozo, will make final arguments before a congressional impeachment commission, which then has five sessions to debate before voting.

Underling the urgency of the process, that vote is scheduled for April 11 and the commission chairman wants all 65 members seated before dawn so that they can finish in the same day.

Shortly after - April 17 is the latest plan - the commission's non-binding recommendation goes to the lower house, which will either scrap impeachment or send Rousseff to trial in the upper house.

Two thirds of the chamber, or 342 votes, are needed to move the case to the Senate, where legislators are considered likely to follow the lower house's lead.

This means Ms Rousseff, who lost her main coalition partner to the opposition last week, might have just days to lobby for support and save her presidency.

Following intense behind-the-scenes dealing, she is soon expected to announce a series of ministerial posts and other government jobs given in reward for congressional support.

She could also find out this week if the Supreme Court agrees to let heavy-hitting but controversial ex-president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, join her cabinet.

Mr Lula is crucial to rallying the leftist base and negotiating an anti-impeachment coalition, but has been barred because he is accused in a case connected to a huge embezzlement and bribery scandal at state oil company Petrobras. The court decision should come by Thursday, Mr Lula says.

"This week will be the week where both sides are playing all their cards pretty hard and making their moves," Gabriel Petrus, a partner at the political consultancy Barral M Jorge Associates, told AFP.

"The following week we'll have the final result of this battle." Ms Rousseff is accused of illegally manipulating government accounts, a charge that many experts consider to be relatively light for impeachment.

However, the one-time Marxist guerrilla during Brazil's military dictatorship is also taking fire for the brutal recession and the Petrobras corruption scandal.

With only 10 per cent government approval ratings and inability to pass legislation in Congress, Ms Rousseff already looks powerless.

But those working to oust Ms Rousseff themselves face serious allegations.

Ms Rousseff's vice-president-turned- opponent, Michel Temer, has been linked - though not charged - as a participant in the Petrobras scandal. If Ms Rousseff goes, he'd become president.

The speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, who has spearheaded the effort against Ms Rousseff, was charged by prosecutors last year with taking millions of dollars in bribes in the scandal and hiding the money in Switzerland.

Huge opposition rallies and smaller but still significant pro-Rousseff rallies are now a regular feature across Latin America's biggest country, accentuating a divide that some fear could turn violent.

At a demonstration Saturday in the leftist northeast of Brazil, Mr Lula said he had "never seen such a climate of hate."

The authorities said late Friday that they are looking into online death threats against Ms Rousseff's spokesman, Edinho Silva, who earlier expressed worries that the increasingly nasty row could produce its "first corpse."

With Ms Rousseff claiming she is victim of a coup and the opposition saying that the future of the country is at stake, compromise appears finished.

Reflecting that spirit, Mr Cunha is planning to break the tradition of house speakers not participating in votes of this kind, Folha newspaper reported Sunday.

In addition, he plans to move the voting day to Sunday, April 17, making it easier for the opposition to rally outside Congress, the report said.

He also will insist on an open vote to make it harder for deputies trying to hedge their bets in a secret ballot or - as Ms Rousseff's camp is trying to persuade many to do - abstaining or not showing up.

"To me, not being present is the same thing as voting (no)," O Tempo newspaper quoted Mr Cunha saying Saturday.

"A political war will be waged and the punishment for those who don't show up will be political."

Yet another trick Mr Cunha plans, Folha reported, is to swing momentum against Ms Rousseff by starting the voting with deputies from the right-leaning south of Brazil, rather than alternate between north and south, as would be the norm.


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