Brazilians are on edge as they await the results of a congressional vote on whether to impeach President Dilma Rousseff over allegations she hid federal budget troubles while campaigning for her second term two years ago.
The lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, began voting Sunday afternoon. The process could take hours, as each member of the 513-seat chamber is given 10 seconds to speak before casting a vote. The house has been debating the impeachment proceedings since Friday in hours-long sessions broadcast on live television. The sessions have been described as raucous and punctuated by yelling, name-calling, and shoving matches between legislators, according to reporters in Brasilia.
Outside the building, thousands of pro- and anti-impeachment demonstrators were gathered Sunday, waving signs and flags. A metal wall more than a mile long was set up to separate the protesters, according to the Associated Press.
Rousseff, the leader of the center-left Workers Party, which has been in power since 2003, has vowed to fight to “the last minute.” Rousseff, who is halfway through her second term, is the first female president of Brazil.
If a two-thirds majority votes for impeachment Sunday, the proceedings would move to the Federal Senate, the upper house, for another vote. If the Senate votes in favor of impeachment, Rousseff would be suspended and replaced by Vice President Michel Temer, a member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, as soon as early May. An impeachment trial that could last six months would follow and end in a final vote. If the Senate votes against impeachment, anti-Rousseff lawmakers would be required to start over.
The leaders of the impeachment push say they have enough votes to approve the measure, The Washington Post reported Sunday. Members of the Workers Party were no longer confident they could block the effort.
Rousseff does not face corruption charges, but the lawmakers behind the effort to remove her say her government used accounting measures in 2014 to mask a growing budget deficit. Critics allege Rousseff used upfront payments on some federal government’s economic and social projects that were not immediately reimbursed—a practice known as “backpedaling”—to portray economic growth during Rousseff’s reelection bid. Rousseff has denied any wrongdoing, arguing that such practices are widely used.
Last October, a federal audit court ruled Rousseff violated finance laws, paving the way for members of the lower house to establish a special committee and begin impeachment proceedings. Earlier this month, the committee recommended that the legislature seek impeachment, which opened the matter to a full vote. The effort to oust Rousseff is led by Eduardo Cunha, the president of the Chamber of Deputies and whom The Guardian describes as Rousseff’s “political nemesis.”
Rousseff has called the impeachment proceedings a “coup” against her. Her government filed a motion with Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court Thursday to annul the results of Sunday’s vote, arguing that the process had been “contaminated,” but the court rejected the request. The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the country’s largest political party, and the Progressive Party, to which Cunha belongs, recently abandoned the ruling coalition, raising the likelihood that Rousseff would not survive the vote.
Rousseff’s approval rating is 10 percent, and polls show a majority of Brazilians believe she should be impeached. The leader drew outrage last month for appointing Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, her predecessor and political mentor who is widely known as “Lula,” to a Cabinet position. Lula is under investigation for his involvement in the Petrobras scandal, the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history, in which executives of the state-run oil company Petrobras and politicians got rich off a decade worth of bribes and kickbacks. Recorded phone calls, released by prosecutors investigating the scandal, suggested Rousseff gave Lula the high-level job to help shield him from prosecution.
Rousseff was not implicated in the Petrobras scheme, but some members of her party were, and the alleged corruption occurred while she served on Petrobras’s board of directors.
Rousseff and her supporters have pointed out that her potential successors and many opposition lawmakers are facing corruption charges or allegations in the Petrobras scandal. Members of the vice president’s party are allegedly “deeply involved” in the scandal, according to the Financial Times. Cunha, second in line to replace Rousseff, was charged with money laundering and corruption last year for allegedly accepting a $5 million bribe. Renan Calheiros, the president of the Senate and third in line to the presidency, has been implicated in the scheme in testimony from a Workers Party politician who was charged in the investigation. More than half of the members of the congressional impeachment committee are under investigation for corruption or other serious crimes.
The months-long impeachment battle has coincided with Brazil’s worst recession in decades. The country faces rising inflation and a shrinking GDP, trends that economists predict will continue this year. Officials are hurrying to organize the Olympic Games in Rio, which are less than four months away, and trying to manage the country’s growing outbreak of the Zika virus, which has infected thousands of mothers and led to severe neurological defects in hundreds of newborns.