Tension heightens in Brazil ahead of impeachment vote

Posted at 12:39 PM, Apr 17, 2016

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff neared a decisive vote Sunday with pro- and anti-government legislators shouting and shoving inside Congress while thousands of Brazilians for and against the embattled leader rallied outside.

Eduardo Cunha, the lower house speaker leading the drive to oust Rousseff, called "for silence" and respect during the Chamber of Deputies session.

The extraordinary session was the culmination of months of fighting, which have largely paralyzed the government and divided the country, with friends and foes of Rousseff dismissing each other as "putchists" and "thieves."

Emotions have run particularly high since debate on impeachment began in the lower house Friday, with legislators holding raucous, name-calling sessions that lasted more than 40 hours.

Outside the legislature, waves of pro- and anti-impeachment demonstrators flooded into the capital of Brasilia from across the huge nation. A metal wall more than a kilometer (mile) long was installed to keep the rival sides safely apart.

Patricia Santos, a retired 52-year-old schoolteacher outside Congress, said she was fed up with the status quo and wanted Rousseff out.

"We want our politicians to be less corrupt, so we hope impeaching her will send a signal to them all," Santos said. "We know that all the parties are involved in the corruption but the (governing) Workers' Party has been the leaders of this all for the last 13 years so they have to go."

Thousands joined in demonstrations, both for and against the government, in other cities.

On Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, thousands of government supporters rallied as funk music blasted from a truck with large speakers.

Jader Alves, a 67-year-old retiree, promised that if Rousseff was impeached he would be back on the streets.

"My president was elected in 2014 and she will remain in office until 2018, no matter what," said Alves.




If 342 of the lower house's 513 lawmakers voted in favor of the impeachment Sunday, the proceedings would move to the Senate, where a separate vote to hold a trial could suspend Rousseff and hand over the top job to Vice President Michel Temer, whom Rousseff has accused of being part of the push against her.

If lawmakers voted against impeachment, the bid to oust Rousseff would be dead and any subsequent effort would have to start over from scratch.

Newspapers updated their tallies of legislator leanings on an almost hourly basis, and the outcome was too close to call as a couple dozen lawmakers remained undecided or undeclared.

In speeches by the leaders of the 25 parties in the Chamber of Deputies that preceded Sunday's vote, lawmakers either embraced the impeachment as marking a much-needed clean slate for Brazil or slammed it as an illegal usurpation of power.

"Brazil is submerged in grave political, ethical, social crises," said Fernando Coelho Filho, a representative from the northeastern state of Pernambuco. ". I have a lot of respect for the president, but she has lost authority and the credibility to lead even a minimum effort to get the country out of this situation."

Daniel Almeida, a representative from Bahia state, agreed the country is mired in multiple crises, but insisted impeachment offered no solution.

"Through an illegitimate government, with no votes? That's the way out?" he asked his fellow lawmakers.

Brazil's president faced impeachment over allegations she broke fiscal laws. Her detractors describe the sleight-of hand accounting as a bid to boost her government's floundering popularity amid a tanking economy and a corruption scandal so widespread it has taken down top public figures from across the political spectrum as well as some of the country's richest businessmen.

Rousseff denied wrongdoing, pointing out that previous presidents used similar accounting techniques. The allegations, she insisted, were part of a "coup" spearheaded by Brazil's traditional ruling elite to snatch power back from her left-leaning Workers' Party, which has governed the past 13 years.

Latin America's largest nation is grappling with problems on multiple fronts. The economy is contracting, inflation is around 10 percent and an outbreak of the Zika virus, which can cause devastating birth defects, has ravaged parts of northeastern states. Rio de Janeiro is gearing up to host the Olympics in August, but sharp budget cuts have fueled worries about whether the country will be ready.

Many of the people pushing to oust Rousseff face serious allegations of wrongdoing themselves. About 60 percent of the 594 members of Congress are facing corruption and other charges.

Temer, a 75-year-old with the Brazilian Democratic Movement, a party bereft of any concrete ideology that has a reputation for backroom wheeling and dealing, has tried to cast himself as a statesman above the fray and a unifying force that can heal a scarred nation.

However, he has been linked to the corruption scheme centered at the state-run Petrobras oil company. Also, because he signed off on some of the administration's questioned accounting maneuvers, Temer could later potentially face impeachment proceedings.

The second in line to replace Rousseff is Cunha, the house speaker and long-time Rousseff enemy. He is facing money laundering and other charges for allegedly accepting some $5 million in kickbacks in connection with the Petrobras scheme and could also be stripped of office over allegations he lied when he told a congressional committee he didn't hold any foreign bank accounts. Documents later emerged linking him and his family to Swiss bank accounts.

Under the special legal status afforded to Brazilian legislators and other top politicians, they must be tried by the Supreme Court, largely shielding them from prosecutions.

Rousseff trumpeted the corruption allegations dogging her enemies, insisting she was the only one not besmirched by corruption.

The argument appeared to have struck a chord, even with ardent impeachment supporters.

"I would feel much more comfortable if someone clean — with no charges, no allegations — were leading this process, but that's hard to find in the Brazilian Congress," said Douglas Sandri, a 25-year-old electrical engineer who traveled from the southern city of Porto Alegre to take part in pro-impeachment demonstrations. "If Temer is found to be corrupt, he will have to go, and all the others, too."