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Dilma Rousseff's impeachment trial begins in Brazil

Projections suggest senators will vote to remove Rousseff permanently from the presidency, putting a final end to almost 14 years of Workers’ Party rule that had initially turned Brazil into a symbol of hope on the world stage.

by James Armour Young
Aug 25 2016, 2:54pm

Photo by Cadu Gomes/EPA

Four days after the closing ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Brazil is plunging back into a national drama with a far different flavor: The impeachment trial of its suspended president, Dilma Rousseff, which begins on Thursday.

The Senate trial culminates impeachment proceedings that began late last year. Rousseff herself is not due to appear at the trial until Monday, when she will lead her own defense. The vote that could remove her from office permanently is expected any time after Tuesday night.

So far, 48 senators out of 81 have already declared they will vote against her. Just six more votes, and she will lose the presidency for good, spelling the ignominious end of an era of Workers' Party rule that began in 2003 with the election of Rousseff's charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to the presidency. The party oversaw a decade of strong growth, propelling the biggest economy in Latin America to the world stage — but then saw its fortunes reverse along with the country's, whose economy has now been falling for eight consecutive quarters.

Even if Rousseff did survive, the trial rams home the discontent in the country as it faces a deep recession, as well as a broader political crisis linked to massive corruption across the political spectrum.

The 68 year-old daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant who used to be a member of a Marxist-inspired urban guerrilla group is accused of breaking the country's fiscal responsibility laws in the run-up to her second election win in 2014. She allegedly employed creative-accounting tricks, in which loans from public banks were used to disguise the true size of Brazil's budget deficit.

"Dilma will be removed for the serious crimes she has committed," said senator Cassio Cunha Lima, one of the most vocal champions of impeachment, during the discussions in the Senate impeachment commission earlier this month. "It's part of the greatest fiscal fraud discovered in Brazilian history."

Rousseff has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and accused her political enemies of carrying out "a coup" against her.

"I can say that if impeachment goes ahead, without a crime of responsibility, it will be a coup," she wrote in a letter last week addressed to the senators who will decide her future, and to the nation. "The electoral college of 110 million people will be substituted by an electoral college of 81 senators."

Rousseff and her supporters argue that such accounting maneuvers are common practice in Brazilian politics. A report by the Folha de São Paulo newspaper in October last year found that many of Brazil's 28 state governments have performed similar actions in recent years.

Worker's Party supporters say that many of those keenest to end Rousseff's presidency are themselves being investigated for far greater crimes — including the now suspended Speaker of Brazil's Lower House, Eduardo Cunha, himself accused of major financial corruption.

Many Brazilians have taken to the streets in huge demonstrations for and against impeachment, some featuring giant inflatable dolls of Rousseff and Lula in prison stripes.

"The public debate is extremely bitter and aggressive, something that is common in the USA but not here in Brazil. In Brazil it's quite new, this division of society," said Sergio Praça, a political scientist and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. "The impeachment debate has also further discredited the political process, which is a global issue and not specific to Brazil, but it's certainly increased greatly here recently."

The glory days under Lula that saw growth of up to 7.5 percent a year and millions of Brazilians escape from poverty are long gone. Brazil's economy shrank by 3.8 percent in 2015 with a similar drop expected this year. Around 11 million Brazilians are currently unemployed with few signs of things getting better in the future.

Meanwhile, dozens of business leaders and senior politicians have become snared within the Lava Jato, or "Car Wash," investigation into a kickback scheme centered around the state-run oil company Petrobras. They include João Vaccari Neto, a former Workers' Party treasurer, and Jose Dirceu, ex-chief of staff under the Lula government.

Rousseff has never been formally linked to the Petrobras corruption probe, though many who support her impeachment talk as if she were, and point out that she was minister of energy in Lula's cabinet at the height of the alleged kickback scheme.

Related: Meet Brazil's Donald Trump: He's Deliberately Outrageous and He Wants to Be President

The impeachment proceedings first gained serious momentum in November last year when Brazil's Federal Audit Court rejected the government's 2014 accounts, ruling that the accounting maneuvers were an illegal manipulation of the budget.

From there the case was opened in congress and eventually sent to a plenary vote in the lower house in May.

That vote bordered on farce. There were glitter guns, flags, and stadium-style chanting, as legislators voted to send the case to the senate. That meant suspending Rousseff and temporarily replacing her with her vice president Michel Temer until the final impeachment vote that is now just days away.

Related: Brazil's interim president is almost as unpopular as Dilma Rousseff was

"I consider the process to be totally legitimate," said David Fleischer, a political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Brasília. "The Workers' Party and Dilma have contested the whole thing very vehemently and violently, though the whole process has had the approval and the accompaniment by the Supreme Court."

Some observers, however, say that it might never have got this far had Rousseff made more effort to soften her cold and unapproachable image at odds with the glad-handing and schmoozing that pervades Brazilian politics.

"The big difference between Lula and Dilma is that he came from a trade union background, where you negotiate and chit-chat and converse and dialogue, seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Fleischer said. "Dilma is completely the opposite. She detests political negotiation and doesn't have any conversations or dialogues with anyone, particularly the private sector."

During the impeachment itself, however, that aloofness may have actually helped the suspended president look composed and dignified.

Rousseff reportedly did nothing more that sit in silence gripping the arms of her chair when, during the May congressional debate, right-wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro dedicated his vote in favor of impeachment to the colonel who tortured her during the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s, when she was a young left-wing guerrilla.

Rousseff has hinted that, should the senators defy projections and vote against impeachment, she will call a referendum on whether to hold new elections. But the mood in Brazil today is more one of acceptance that Temer will soon be confirmed as president until the next elections in 2018.

A veteran center-right politician, Temer came under fire immediately after he was appointed for naming an all-white and all-male cabinet in a country where 54 percent of the population is mixed race.

Related: Savior or Villain? A New Leader Steps Into the Scandal-Plagued Brazilian Presidency

With approval rates of around 11 percent, Temer is scarcely more popular than Rousseff and was roundly booed at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which Rousseff herself refused to attend.

"Many people will accept him, but many won't," said political analyst Sergio Praça. "His legitimacy will always be questioned by part of the population."

Follow James Armour Young on Twitter: @seeadarkness