With the Rio Olympics over, Brazil’s attention returns to its long-running political drama as the country’s Senate starts the final phase of suspended President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment trial, a proceeding widely expected to permanently remove her from power.
During the trial, set to begin on Thursday, Rousseff will face charges that she illegally masked the country’s growing budget deficit through accounting tricks. She has denied the charges and said the accounting was lawful. A conviction by at least two-thirds of the 81 senators would definitively oust her from the presidency and allow interim President Michel Temer to serve out her term, which lasts until late 2018.
The trial caps a legal process that has sharply divided citizens of the world’s ninth-largest economy. Polls show a slight majority of voters want Ms. Rousseff out permanently for having presided over an economic downturn and what many see as a corrupt administration. Her supporters, meanwhile, say her ouster is tantamount to a coup by right-wingers who want to stop her government’s social spending on the poor.
During the trial, which will be overseen by Chief Justice Ricardo Lewandowski, arguments will be heard and witnesses called. Ms. Rousseff herself is expected to take the stand Aug. 29. Senators are expected to begin voting after her testimony.
In a July survey by opinion pollster Datafolha, 58% of respondents said they would like senators to vote against her. With Brazil’s 5,570 townships all electing new mayors in October, lawmakers in Brasília are under pressure to listen to voters. “The elections make it harder for Ms. Rousseff’s defense,” said André Cesar, a political scientist in Brasília. “Senators who are still undecided have a connection with voters at the local level. That curbs the defense’s possibilities.”
Temer, from the center Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, PMDB, has been in charge since May, when Ms. Rousseff was suspended to stand trial. The former running mates are now fierce enemies, with Temer pushing for more conservative policies than those promoted by the PT. Ms. Rousseff says he plotted her ousting.
Temer may face his own legal troubles. Brazil’s electoral court is looking into allegations that the Rousseff-Temer ticket benefited from illegal funds diverted from state-controlled oil company Petrobras. The probe could result in their 2014 re-election being canceled and a new vote called. A verdict is likely to come in the next several months.
Rousseff and the PT both have said they only used lawful donations. Temer has said his share of the campaign funding was legal.
The impeachment, which was launched in December, is the climax of the epic political battle triggered by the Petrobras scandal. Brazil’s major parties and dozens of politicians and leading businessmen have been arrested in a graft scheme that allegedly skimmed billions of dollars from Petrobras. As they fought for political survival, politicians turned onto each other, making policy-making all but impossible.
“Measures, actions and reforms needed to fight the economic crisis have been blocked,” Ms. Rousseff complained in an open letter to senators issued last week in an attempt to boost her chances.
The political crisis dovetailed with a 3.8% economic contraction last year that erased millions of jobs and damped consumer and business confidence, thrusting Latin America’s largest economy into a funk it may take years to overcome.
On Saturday, just days before the impeachment vote, Rousseff said her biggest political mistake was “choosing as vice president Michel Temer. Even if Rousseff has to leave office, she is likely to put all her weight behind Lula da Silva, her predecessor and mentor who is likely to run for president in 2018. Though the opposition has accused him of corruption, supporters of Lula and his Workers Party argue that the actions against the former president are an attempt to prevent him from running as president again. In all recent opinion polls, Lula has topped the list of all presidential candidates.
A major announcement from Lula can be expected soon after the impeachment vote on Thursday.