Brazil’s lower house speaker triggered impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday, plunging Latin America’s biggest country into its deepest crisis in decades.
Speaker Eduardo Cunha’s decision, which now must be approved by a special committee to go any further, could see the country’s first female leader forced from office just when Brazil is struggling with a corruption scandal and deepening recession.
Rousseff, a leftist guerrilla during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship and less than a year into her second term as president, said she was confident of surviving.
“I am convinced and completely sure of the total lack of foundation regarding this petition,” she said on television in her first reaction. “There is not one illegal act by me,” she said.
The impeachment procedure kicked off with Cunha’s acceptance of a petition filed by several lawyers, including a disillusioned founder of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. It accuses her of illegally fiddling government accounts to mask budget holes.
The acceptance of the petition was only the first step in what would be a long and complex procedure, punctuated by several legal hurdles, before any final vote over Rousseff’s fate.
Experts are divided on her chances. Many call the case against her relatively weak, but also note her deep unpopularity among voters and tepid backing even from deputies and senators in her ruling coalition.
– Corruption and infighting –
Cunha presented himself as reluctant, saying “I take no pleasure.” However, his decision to set the impeachment machine in motion ramped up a bitter and highly personal battle against Rousseff and her party.
The decision to accept the petition — something only the speaker can do — came shortly after Workers’ Party members on the lower house ethics committee said they backed removing Cunha from his post because of corruption charges.
He is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes and hiding money in Switzerland as part of a vast corruption scheme uncovered by prosecutors at the Petrobras state oil giant. Brazilian news sites described his move as “vengeance.”
While Rousseff and Cunha battle in Congress, Brazil is heading into an ever deeper recession, with rising inflation and employment, a currency one third down over the year, and mounting turmoil over the Petrobras scandal.
Officials said Tuesday that GDP had shrunk 4.5 percent year-on-year in the third quarter, prompting fears that the world’s seventh biggest economy is headed for the worst decline since the Great Depression of 1930-31.
However, paralysis in Congress has left measures that Rousseff’s government says will balance the books and restore investor confidence in limbo.
– Maneuvers –
Rousseff’s allies and foes will immediately enter a period of intense maneuvering.
A special commission with all parties represented proportionally will be formed within 15 days to decide on whether to proceed.
If the answer is yes, the recommendation will go to the full lower house where two-thirds of deputies — 342 out of 513 — are required for impeachment to be upheld.
Rousseff would then be suspended while the Senate took up the trial. Her vice president Michel Temer, 75, would take over.
If the upper house voted by two thirds majority Rousseff would then have to resign.
Rousseff, who took over from once hugely popular Workers’ Party co-founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has barely 10 percent popularity ratings and is widely blamed for Brazil’s mounting woes.
On paper, her ruling coalition would easily fend off impeachment, holding 314 of the deputies in the lower house. But how many of those votes she can count on is far from clear.
She has repeatedly said she would put up a stern fight, calling impeachment threats “a coup plot” — an especially sensitive charge from a woman tortured under the old military regime.
Brazil has faced an impeachment scandal before. In 1992, then president Fernando Collor de Mello stepped down ahead of his impeachment on corruption charges.
After staying out of politics during a period of disqualification, he returned as a senator. But in an apt illustration of today’s political environment, he was this year again accused of corruption in the Petrobras scandal.