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Scuffles Break Out in Brazil's Congress as Rousseff Impeachment Vote Begins

The impeachment crisis has paralyzed activity in Brasilia, just four months before the country is due to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and as it seeks to battle an epidemic of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in newborns.

by VICE News
Apr 17 2016, 9:15pm

General view of the Chamber of Deputies as they begin the discussions ahead of the impeachment ballot in Brasilia, Brazil on 17 April 2016. (Lano Andrade/EPA)

Lawmakers assembled in Brazil's lower house on Sunday to begin the voting session which will determine whether President Dilma Rousseff will be impeached. The vote is hotly contentious. Rousseff's impeachment could bring the 13-year old rule of the leftist Workers Party to an end.

As of 7:30pm Eastern time, the vote was 160 in favor of impeachment and 42 against, with opposition forces expected to easily surpass the 342 votes needed to push forward with impeachment.

When laying out their reasons for or against, both sides claim to be acting in the interest of safeguarding democracy.

Many of those in favor of impeachment were decked out in green and yellow, shouting "Rousseff Out." Those against were mostly clad in red, chanting "Don't allow the coup."

The recent political crisis in Brazil was compounded by the worst economic recession since the 1930's, and has split an already deeply divided country. Polls suggest that over 60 percent of Brazil's 200 million people support Rousseff's impeachment, whose inner circle was tarnished by a vast corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras.

The Workers Party still has strong support among millions of working class Brazilians, many of who credit its welfare programs from saving their families from poverty during the last decade.

As the tumultuous session began in Congress, lawmakers from both sides shouted slogans and warring groups shoved each other as they entered the chamber. Scuffles broke out in front of the Speaker's podium as pro-impeachment legislators waved flags saying "Goodbye Dear."

Ahead of the vote, which is expected to run late into Sunday evening, hundreds of thousands of protesters — both for and against impeachment — took to the streets in cities across the country. One anti-impeachment protest organized by Furacåo 2000 (a popular record label) and Frente Brasil Popular (a coalition that encompasses the Workers Party) kicked off at Copacabana Beach on Sunday morning.

Rousseff was seen out on her habitual morning cycle on Sunday and returned to her residence to lead last-minute deal-making talks along with her charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Some party insiders told Reuters that the tide was turning and that Rousseff and Lula had persuaded enough wavering lawmakers to vote in their favor or abstain.

"Our latest calculations are that we have the votes to block impeachment," José Guimarães, the Workers Party leader in the lower house, told reporters inside Congress.

Before the vote, negotiators said there were around 20 legislators still holding talks with both sides and the vote could swing either way.

Surveys by leading newspapers continue to show the government lacks the one-third of votes or abstentions needed in the 513-seat lower house to avoid the president being sent for trial in the Senate.

Pro- and anti-impeachment protesters gathered in various parts of the capital to make their way to the grassy esplanade in front of Congress.

Public security officials erected a 6.5 foot high wall dividing Brasilia, Brazil's capital, to prevent opposing protesters from engaging in violent face-offs. The "impeachment wall" as it has been nicknamed, is manned by police and reinforced by military personnel. It's been described as symbolic of the stark political divide in Brazilian society. The wall stretches for more than a half mile.

Buses carrying some of the thousands of police being deployed in the capital Brasilia arrived and officers got into position. Further protests are expected in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

In the car park of Brasilia's soccer stadium, some of Rousseff's supporters waved red flags and set off firecrackers, as they prepared to march on Congress.

"There won't be a coup, there will be a fight," the crowd shouted, referring to Rousseff's view that the move to impeach her has no legal grounding and is a coup d'état.

The impeachment crisis has paralyzed Brasilia just four months before the country is due to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and as it seeks to battle an epidemic of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in newborns.

While Rousseff herself has not been personally charged with corruption, many of the lawmakers who will decide her fate on Sunday have.

Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog group in Brasilia, says more than 300 of the legislators who will vote — well over half the chamber — are under investigation for corruption, fraud or electoral crimes.

If Rousseff loses Sunday's vote, the Senate must decide whether there are legal grounds to hear the case against her, a decision expected in early May. Vice President Michel Temer would take over automatically if she is dismissed.

Financial markets in Brazil have rallied strongly on hopes that Rousseff's dismissal would usher in a more business-friendly Temer administration. Sources close to the vice president told Reuters he was considering a senior executive at Goldman Sachs in Brazil for a top economic post.

Whoever governs the country in coming months will inherit a toxic political environment, a divided Congress, rising unemployment and an expected contraction of four percent this year in the world's ninth-largest economy.

Reuters contributed to this report