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Impeachment Is Snapping at the Heels of Brazil’s President Rousseff

Barring a major upset, a 65-member congressional commission is slated to vote on Monday evening in favor of a recommendation that Rousseff's impeachment be put before the plenary, probably on Sunday.

by Eva Hershaw and Leandro Melito
Apr 11 2016, 9:05pm

Photo by Antonio Lacerda/EPA

Brazil's embattled President Dilma Rousseff is looking ever closer to being impeached after a congressional committee voted 38 to 27 in favor of her ouster on Monday night.

The vote is the first of three needed to place the president on suspended leave. The second, from the full Chamber of Deputies, could come as early as this Sunday. If that goes through, the final vote would be by the full Senate.

When the result of Monday's vote was announced just after 8:30pm in Brasilia, the congressional chamber erupted with cheers and applause.

"There is no longer a climate for this government, there is no base to sustain it," deputy Jovair Arantes, who headed the committee, had said before the vote. "Nobody still trusts this government, and there is no possibility for change."

The opposition appears to be in a hurry to ensure Rousseff's exit in a context in which popular support for the move has waned somewhat from 68 percent in March to 61 percent last week, according to Datafolha.

The leader of the lower house Eduardo Cunha, who has been pushing for the president's impeachment, has said that the plenary vote could take place this Sunday, April 17. There has been widespread speculation in the media that Cunha is pushing for a weekend decision in the hope that large pro-impeachment protests will put deputies under pressure to support the move.

The Ministries Esplanade — a huge lawn that stretches out behind the congressional building — was already being divided by police barricades on Monday as the debate continued. Thousands of security guards were to be deployed in the area in anticipation of protests by opponents and supporters of the government that were expected to start before the weekend.

Related: Millions Take to Brazil's Streets to Demand an End to Dilma Rousseff's Presidency

The president's possible impeachment rests on charges that she tweaked with national accounts in order to cover budgetary shortfalls in 2015, the year after her reelection. The government's supporters allege that the proceedings amount to little more than a desperate attempt to unseat a democratically elected president, tantamount to a coup."

The moves to impeach Rousseff come in the midst of broader political crisis associated with a massive anti-corruption probe, deemed Operation Lava Jato, or Car Wash, which is investigating a kickback scheme involving state-run company Petrobras. The probe has already led to the jailing of many powerful politicians and businessmen from all major parties.

Dilma has repeatedly rejected calls for her resignation and has said her government will survive impeachment efforts.

Ahead of the vote on Monday, the country's Attorney General José Eduardo Cardozo maintained that the budgetary adjustments made by the president did not amount to an impeachable crime. Cardozo said that they were logical responses to the country's economic problems. "It was not the president of the republic that caused this, but rather the economic situation," he said.

The possible ousting of Rousseff is just one aspect of the country's deep political crisis which has called into question the entire political class.

More than half of the committee members voting on impeachment proceedings on Monday face charges in the Lava Jato investigation, as does house speaker Cunha. Though Rousseff herself has not been named in that probe, other high profile members of the governing Workers' Party have.

Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was called in for questioning by federal police last month in connection with the Lava Jato investigation. A few days later, Rousseff sought to make him her chief of staff. The move was widely interpreted both as an effort to protect him from prosecution, and an attempt to harness his legendary political skills and influence to her fight against impeachment.

Related: Brazil's Political Crisis Is Reaching Breaking Point

Lula's appointment to the government has triggered several contradictory decisions by different courts on whether he should be allowed to take up the position. The Supreme Court will take a final vote on the issue on April 20, after impeachment hearings.

Meanwhile, last week executives from the country's second-largest construction company, Andrade Gutiérrez, gave testimony to prosecutors claiming that both Rousseff and her vice president, Michel Temer, received kickbacks from inflated Petrobras contracts to finance their election in 2014. If proven, it could be strongest link tying the administration to the corruption investigation, potentially opening the door for the Superior Electoral Court to void 2014 elections.

A week ago, the supreme court added another twist to the already complicated plot when they ordered house speaker Cunha to review a request to impeach Vice President Temer on grounds very similar to the ones he had accepted as valid for starting the impeachment process against Rousseff.

Cunha had originally refused the request to review Temer's position. He has now threatened to introduce a further nine impeachment requests against Rousseff if he is forced to proceed with the process against Temer.

Both Temer and Cunha are members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, which recently left the governing coalition. Many people calling for Rousseff's impeachment, including Cunha, had supported the idea of replacing her with Temer. In the first poll of its type last week, 58 percent of Brazilians supported Temer's impeachment.

Cunha — likened by the media as a Brazilian embodiment of the brazen character Frank Underwood — has also been implicated in Lava Jato and was recently named in the Panama Papers. Public polls show that 76 percent of Brazilians support his resignation.

With the impeachment of Rousseff and Temer now on the table, a discussion of general elections as a possible way out of the political crisis has resurfaced with renewed vigor.

Related: President Rousseff Is Bringing Back Lula as She Fights Impeachment and He Fights Arrest

A poll released last week by Datafolha shows that if both Rousseff and Temer were impeached, 79 percent of Brazilians would favor early elections. Datafolha listed Lula, alongside former presidential candidates Aécio Neves and Marina Silva, as the public figures most frequently mentioned as frontrunners by those polled.

An editorial in the leading newspaper Folha de São Paulo last week voiced its support for the idea that the president and vice president should resign and elections be called. The idea also seems to be winning support in the Senate from key members of Temer's PMDB including Senate President Renan Calheiros.

Some supporters of the idea are calling on the electoral authorities to investigate Rousseff and Temer's campaign funds for irregularities that would render the 2014 vote invalid, such as last week's allegations that they used Petrobras kickbacks. On Friday, however, the electoral authorities said that, even in such a scenario, they do not have the money to organize a new presidential election this year.

Related: Brazil Opens Impeachment Proceedings Against President Rousseff

Follow Eva Hershaw and Leandro Melito on Twitter: @beets4eva and @leandromelito