Like crowds drawn to a lynching, thousands of Brasilians descended on the nation’s capital on Friday as the country’s notoriously corrupt lawmakers began an impeachment debate that looks likely to drive President Dilma Rousseff from power.
With hundreds of thousands expected by the final vote on Sunday, some came to prevent what they saw as an injustice against an elected leader and an attack on democracy. Others to cheer on the removal of an unpopular leader who is accused of manipulating government accounts ahead of the last election. Almost all hoped to influence a congress in the midst of its most morbidly compelling drama in more than 20 years. But time is running out.
With Rousseff’s chances shrinking by the day, power is already shifting from the modernist Palácio do Planalto, the president’s official place of work. Desperately fighting for survival, the president has less time, energy and authority to hold court, dispense favours and appoint ministers.
Instead congressmen and lobbyists now drive past her office on the way to the two alternative centres of influence: the Jaburu, the office of Vice-President Michel Temer, who will take power if Rousseff is removed (she accused him of treachery this week); or the Royal Tulip hotel, where the former Workers party president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva is trying to rally support for his predecessor.
Long-term observers say the double dealing – in political posts and public works projects – is staggering. “The mark of Brazilian politicians is pragmatism and opportunism,” says Chico Alencar, a longtime lawmaker with the Socialism and Liberty party. “Some go straight from Lula at the Royal Tulip to Temer in Jaburu.”
Afonso Florence, the leader of Roussef’s Workers party in the House of Deputies, noted wryly that the car park outside Temer’s office is always full these days, a sign, he says, of the vice-president’s duplicity.
“Dilma believed in him. [But] you never know beforehand that you will be betrayed,” Florence said, juxtaposing this treachery with the fidelity of his party leader, during her youth as a Marxist guerrilla. “Dilma was imprisoned and tortured for three years during the dictatorship but she never betrayed her comrades.”
Although defiantly repeating the Workers party line that what they call a “coup” will be defeated, Florence cuts a somewhat forlorn figure, twiddling his fingers and sighing as he pondered questions about the government’s chances of survival. “It’s extremely serious,” he admits. “It’s sad that they use these illegal means.”
The legality of impeachment is debatable. Rousseff is being impeached for window-dressing government accounts ahead of the last election with a temporary transfer of money from state banks. Similar misdeeds – albeit on a smaller scale – went unpunished during previous governments. But in the absence of a no-confidence vote in the Brazilian constitution, impeachment is now being used as a pretext for the removal of a president whose approval ratings have plunged to 10% amid the worst economic downturn for decades and revelations of systematic corruption.
The spectacle is certainly grotesque. Of the 513 deputies who will pass judgment on Rousseff’s alleged wrongdoing on Sunday, 53 have been charged with crimes and another 100 or so are under investigation.
The impeachment campaign is being led by the House speaker, Eduardo Cunha, who is accused of taking more than $5m in kickbacks and lying to congress about secret bank accounts in Switzerland. The likely beneficiary is Temer, who has brazenly plotted against his running mate to the point of “accidentally” leaking a recorded rehearsal of the speech he plans to make if he assumes power.
Lawmakers increasingly assume that this will be the case. Over the past week, the chances of Rousseff’s survival have diminished rapidly with a daily drip of defections from the ruling camp of former allies, including the Progressive party which has 47 lower house seats.
“Once these mid-sized parties moved towards impeachment, that was the final nail in Dilma’s coffin,” said David Fleischer, professor emeritus at the University of Brasilia.
Such is the deluge, the president is in danger of being buried prematurely. On Friday, she woke to two of the grimmest pieces of news so far. The latest vote tallies in the Folha and Estado newspapers show – for the first time – that the opposition will secure the two-thirds majority in the lower house that it needs to push the impeachment process to the senate. The supreme court also showed that it will not ride to her rescue. It rejected motions to block or change Sunday’s vote.
If Rousseff loses on Sunday, the senate will have 10 sessions to decide whether they should proceed with the impeachment process. If a simple majority of the 81 senators approves, the president is temporarily removed from office for up to 180 days until a final decision must be made with a two-thirds majority.
Some Workers party lawmakers say privately they are resigned to defeat and are already preparing for the rebuilding that must follow.
In the opposition camp, the mood is ebullient. Pro-impeachment lawmakers have started a sweepstake about the margin of victory.
Senator Romario Jucá told the Guardian he expects the impeachment camp to win by a margin of almost 40 seats, which would boost the Brazilian currency and stock markets and usher in a period of public spending cuts and sound fiscal management. “Sunday’s vote will be remembered in history as the point whenBrazil was redirected towards the right track, towards realising its potential growth,” he said.
Jucá, a close ally of Temer’s, is the senate leader of the Democratic Movement party, the biggest political force in Brazil. A party of power-brokers rather than ideologues, it has allied with left- and rightwing governments to maintain its influence. Until last month it was part of the ruling coalition, but Jucá – a longtime critic of the alliance – has been delighted at the speed at which loyalties have shifted. “It was a stampede of bulls,” he said, “able to smash through any obstacle.”
Likely to take a prominent position in the new administration, he is also among the lawmakers under investigation by the Lava Jato probe into a vast kickback scheme that channelled billions of dollars from the state oil company Petrobras into campaign coffers of the Workers party and its former allies.
Rousseff, by comparison, has never been accused by prosecutors of a crime. Asked if it was hypocritical for accused politicians to judge Rousseff on relatively minor charges, Jucá replied that unlike her, his case was unproven. The president, he argued, had to be removed because of the damage she was doing to the country’s economy, which is mired in recession.
“We looked for a constitutional solution. Apart from what we did, the only other way was to wat for elections in 2018. Brazil can’t wait that long,” he said. He denied Workers party claims that this was a coup, noting that impeachment followed strict procedures, is supported by a majority of the public (polls have shown more than 60% of voters are in favour of removing the president), and will lead to a replacement not by a dictator but by the elected second-in-line.
Alencar, the Socialism and Liberal party lawmaker who is opposed to impeachment, agrees this is not a coup, noting how different the current process is from the sudden, violent military takeovers of the past. But he says it is dubious in many other ways.
He argues that the penalty is disproportionate to Rousseff’s alleged wrongdoing, the curtailment of her mandate diminishes the value of elections and the PMDB – as the primary coalition partner – was also responsible for the policies and practices that led to economic recession and systematic corruption.
“Nothing will change as a result of this,” he says. “It’s a lynching.”