This Could Be Dilma Rousseff's Final Day In Office as Brazil's President

Brazil's senate has opened the session in which senators are expected to vote to impeach Rousseff, the country’s first female president, for allegedly manipulating the national accounts.
May 11, 2016, 6:30pm
Imagen por Fernando Bizerra Jr./EPA

As Brazil's senate prepared to vote on whether to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, the woman herself framed her probable departure from office as an attack on much more than her administration.

"I have no doubt that this is a fight for democracy," the country's first female leader said on Tuesday night at a national conference on women's politics. "It is a fight for our young and fragile Brazilian democracy that is ours to defend."

By Wednesday morning the country's senators had gathered to open the impeachment session rooted in accusations that Rousseff window dressed the national accounts to hide budgetary shortfalls after her reelection in 2014.

Members opposed to impeachment denounced irregularities and called for the session to be postponed, to no avail. Meanwhile, the party of Vice President Michel Temer, set to replace Rousseff if she is suspended to face trial, began running photos of the vice president with captions reading "Today is the day" and "It won't be long until Brazil is united under a government that is free of spite and hate."

With the voting expected to get underway soon, there was little to suggest anything would stop Rousseff from being forced into suspension while facing trial — the biggest turn yet in what has been a surreal political crisis for South America's most populous nation.

"Brazil is in a situation that is not, in any way, enviable," said Alexander Barros, a political science professor and founder of the political consulting firm Early Alert. "You have an accumulation of crises that I don't ever remember having seen in a democratic Brazil, and a political system that is simply not equipped to react."

Less than two years ago, Rousseff was elected with 54 million votes in a narrow victory over her nearest rival. Today, the country is suffering its worst economic recession since the 1930s. A whopping 318 of the 594 members of the lower house are being investigated for serious crimes or even facing charges, while the same is true of 49 of the 81 senate members.

Related: The Impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff Now Seems All but Inevitable

"Wednesday is D-day for Brazil," said Barros. "After that vote, we'll see what happens, but at this point, no one can really be certain."

The 68-year-old Rousseff's political story was already remarkable.

Born the daughter of an immigrant from Bulgaria in the large and industrial city of Belo Horizonte, the young Rousseff joined the armed struggle against the military dictatorship installed by a coup in 1964. During her time in the guerrilla she was tortured and imprisoned between 1970 and 1972.

When she was released, thin and ill, Rousseff returned home and eventually moved to Rio Grande do Sul to study economics and found the Democratic Labor Party with then husband Carlos Araújo. It was years later, in 2001, that she joined the Worker's Party as part of ex-president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva's team, eventually becoming his Minister of Energy.

Rousseff then became the first woman president of Brazil in 2010 with Lula's backing. Although she embraced many of his political projects, her style was much more confrontational. She also pushed for many of Lula's projects to be implemented more quickly.

"In order to accelerate the pace of Lulismo, Dilma poked jaguars with short sticks," wrote political scientist Andre Singer, alluding to behavior some congressmen complained was pushy.

According to Singer, such provocations, coupled with policies that business groups saw to be anti-developmentalist — such as strict labor laws requiring comprehensive benefits to workers — would make it harder for her to navigate the troubles to come, such as a major economic downturn.

Related: Millions of Brazilians Hate All Politicians, but They Love This Anti-Corruption Judge

Flavio Britto, an expert of electoral law at the University of Brasilia, also suggests Rousseff's reluctance to seek dialogue led her opponents in the legislature to promote impeachment as the solution to the country's economic woes.

"The president stood up to an aggressive and arrogant Congress, and that brought consequences," Britto said. "Including the beginning of this [impeachment] process."

Although the impeachment itself is focused on the intricacies of acceptable accounting methods, the political crisis surrounding the probable removal of Rousseff is intimately associated with a landmark graft investigation that has shaken up the entire Brazilian political class.

The investigation — dubbed the Lava Jato, or Car Wash — began as a probe into allegations that politicians received kickbacks in exchange for inflated contracts given out by state-run oil company Petrobras. Over the past two years, the probe ballooned into a sweeping corruption investigation that has jailed members of Brazil's highest political and social echelons.

While Rousseff has not been named in the investigation, she was Minister of Energy at the time the corruption was allegedly taking place. And while all major parties have been implicated in the scheme, the governing Workers' Party cannot hide from the fact that it was in the driver's seat.

Lava Jato has consequently never been far away from the debate over an impeachment process that, after countless turns and falls along the way, began to seem near inevitable after the lower house voted overwhelmingly in favor of her ouster on April 17.

The plots twists, however, have continued almost right up to the vote.

Related: In Stunning Twist, Brazil's Lower House Acting Speaker Annuls Rousseff Impeachment

Last Thursday, the supreme court ordered Eduardo Cunha to step down as president of the lower house, where he had promoted the impeachment process. The decision to remove him came 142 days after the country's attorney general requested he be dismissed on the grounds that he had used his position in "an illicit manner" to prevent investigations against him from moving forward.

Cunha is implicated in the Lava Jato probe, with the supreme court opening an investigation into allegations of corruption and money laundering against him in March. Last week's ruling, written by minister Teori Zavascki, said Cunha's removal as president of the lower house was necessary in order to "ensure that we have a republic for the common people, not a community of untouchables."

Cunha, whose position as a legislator has not been affected, claimed that he was the victim of retaliation for his role in impeachment proceedings. Others, however, accuse the supreme court of dragging its feet in a way that allowed him to push impeachment forward.

Political scientist Paulo Nascimento of the University of Brasilia, doubts the removal of Cunha at an earlier time would have impacted the lower house vote last month. He stresses that many legislators who supported Rousseff's impeachment are also enemies of Cunha.

"Without him, the process would have certainly been slower," Nascimento said. "But I think the mood in the chamber was in favor of impeachment, and he simply facilitated that process."

Probably the biggest surprise, however, came when Cunha's replacement suddenly announced he would be annulling that lower house vote — with just 48 hours to go before today's senate vote.

Waldir Maranhão's announcement sent the media into a frenzy until senate president, Renan Calheiros, said he would go ahead as planned and Maranhão backtracked. Nascimento believes it was little more than a failed strategy aimed at halting the impeachment process possibly negotiated by Maranhão in exchange for the promise of a position in the senate.

Meanwhile, as the impeachment process against Rousseff has gathered steam so too have Vice President Temer's preparations for taking over.

A constitutional lawyer who has not previously tended to look for the spotlight himself, Temer has already made it clear he is planning to move the country to the right as he seeks to guide the country out of economic crisis.

Related: President Rousseff's Likely Impeachment Will Push Brazil to the Right

His strategy to deal with deep-rooted problems of corruption and institutional incompetence, however, are not so clear.

But, for today at least, all eyes are on Dilma Rousseff.

"What is certain is that the legacy of Dilma will not be a positive one at this point," said Nascimento. He said the image of the Workers' Party and ex-President Lula could potentially still be salvaged, "but the same is not likely true for Dilma."

On Tuesday, speaking at a conference on women's politics in Brasilia, the fact that her term was almost certainly drawing to a premature end was present, but Rousseff appeared not only defiant, but also somewhat upbeat.

"I feel that I have been the victim of an injustice," she said. "But I am a victim like so many Brazilian men and women, especially the women... We are victims with a will to fight."

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