Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, Faces Prospect of Impeachment
The speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress agreed Wednesday to start impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, raising pressure on the beleaguered leader at a time when she is grappling with a severe economic downturn and a colossal graft scandal in her government.
The move by Eduardo Cunha, the House speaker, who is himself battling charges in a bribery scheme, opens a new phase of uncertainty in Brazil. A vote in Congress on whether to impeach Ms. Rousseff is expected to involve weeks of delicate political negotiations, making it challenging for proceedings to culminate before a holiday recess expected to start later this month.
In the meantime, however, the legal battle over impeachment could contribute to a sense of paralysis in Brasília, the capital, thwarting Ms. Rousseff’s efforts to win approval in Congress for austerity measures. Either way, her adversaries are pushing her into a corner at a time when the economy is hemorrhaging jobs and powerful allies are under arrest on corruption charges.
The effort to begin impeachment proceedings could still be thwarted in the end, as it would require approval by two-thirds of the legislators in the lower house.
“Right now, the government has the votes in Congress that it needs to prevent impeachment from materializing,” said Brasílio Sallum, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo who is an authority on impeachment proceedings in Brazil.
“But the political situation is so volatile that things could easily change a few weeks from now,” Mr. Sallum added.
Before Congress goes into recess, a committee in the lower house would need to be formed to examine the impeachment request and decide whether it should advance. Then legislators would be expected to go through various procedural hurdles.
Given the narrow time window, political analysts say it is unlikely that the lower house of Congress could act decisively on impeachment proceedings before its recess unless special sessions are convened. And before an impeachment vote could take place, legislators in Ms. Rousseff’s Workers Party have vowed to seek a Supreme Court injunction blocking the entire process.
Still, the impasse reflects a level of political infighting in Brazil that is making it increasingly difficult for Ms. Rousseff to govern effectively, drawing comparisons with the turmoil around the impeachment in 1992 of President Fernando Collor, who resigned in the face of an influence-peddling scandal. (Mr. Collor has resurrected his political career as a senator, though he is now also under investigation in the bribery scandal involving the national oil company, Petrobras.)
Mr. Cunha, a conservative congressman from Rio de Janeiro, said he based his decision on an October ruling by an audit court tied to Congress that said that Ms. Rousseff improperly used funds from state banks to cover budget shortfalls.
But unlike with an array of other political figures in Brazil, no testimony has surfaced indicating that Ms. Rousseff personally benefited from a bribery scheme that flourished in connection with deals pursued by Petrobras, even though she oversaw the company’s board when the corruption was ramping up.
In that way, Ms. Rousseff stands in stark contrast to Mr. Cunha, whom prosecutors have charged with taking as much as $40 million in bribes for himself and his allies. Mr. Cunha has also come under scrutiny over revelations of undeclared Swiss bank accounts.
Mr. Cunha’s opponents claim that he accepted the impeachment request as a form of retaliation against Ms. Rousseff after legislators in her party sought Wednesday to remove him from his post while he remained under the cloud of investigation.
Just hours later on Wednesday, Mr. Cunha, an evangelical Christian radio commentator, told reporters, “I don’t have any happiness in doing this,” adding, “I’m not doing it for political reasons.”
For Ms. Rousseff, the challenges in Congress point to yet another low point in her presidency after she narrowly won re-election a year ago to a second term. Since then, she has grappled with large street protests seeking her ouster, single-digit approval ratings and Brazil’s worst economic crisis in decades.
Reacting to the impeachment request, Ms. Rousseff appeared Wednesday night on national television and drew comparisons between herself and Mr. Cunha, emphasizing that she had no undeclared foreign bank accounts and had not been accused of illicit enrichment. “I am absolutely calm regarding the inadmissibility of this request,” she said.
Her leftist supporters have likened the push for impeachment to a coup, contending that Ms. Rousseff’s opponents are manipulating political institutions in an attempt to oust her. “This announcement is the result of the abuse of power,” said Wadih Damous, a legislator with the Workers Party. “Their reasoning does not stand up to scrutiny.”