Brazil's Senate set for vote that will likely suspend President Rousseff from office

President Dilma Rousseff is expected to become Brazil's first leader in more than two decades to be removed from office when the Senate votes later on whether to place her on trial for breaking budget rules.
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (right) greets an indigenous woman during the Opening ceremony of the National Policy Conference for Women in Brasilia.
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (right) greets an indigenous woman during the Opening ceremony of the National Policy Conference for Women in Brasilia.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRASÍLIA (AFP) - Brazil's Senate held a marathon debate on Wednesday (May 11) on suspending and impeaching President Dilma Rousseff, whose hours in office appeared to be numbered as the Supreme Court rejected her bid to halt the proceedings.

Even Ms Rousseff's allies said she had no chance of surviving the Senate vote, which could end 13 years of leftist rule in Latin America's biggest country.

Ms Rousseff is accused of illegal accounting manoeuvres, but says the charges are trumped up and amount to a "coup" by her right-wing opponents.

A simple majority in the 81-member Senate will trigger her six-month suspension pending trial. A two-thirds majority would then be needed to remove her permanently.

Senate President Renan Calheiros, who was overseeing the proceedings, told reporters that impeachment would be "traumatic" for Brazil.

 

But Ms Rousseff's chances of avoiding it all but evaporated as the high court denied her attorney general's last-ditch attempt to stop the process.

She had argued that the architect of the impeachment drive, lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha manipulated the process to avoid facing trial himself for allegedly taking millions in bribes in a huge corruption scandal centred on state oil company Petrobras.

Mr Cunha was himself suspended by the Supreme Court last week for abuse of office.

But Justice Teori Zavascki ruled the government's case lacked "legal plausibility." That cleared what looked to be the last potential barrier ahead of a vote that the Senate leader said he expected to hold on Wednesday night local time.

He said Ms Rousseff would be formally notified of her suspension on Thursday and he would discuss with her the details of how she would hand over power to her vice-president-turned-enemy Michel Temer.

Due to host the Olympic Games in less than three months, Brazil is struggling with its worst recession in decades and a corruption scandal reaching deep into the political and business elite.

The political crisis has left the sprawling South American country deeply divided between those outraged at Ms Rousseff for presiding over an economic collapse and colossal graft, on the one hand, and on the other those loyal to her Workers' Party for transformative social programs that lifted tens of millions of people from poverty.

The divisions were plain to see outside Congress, where police erected a giant metal wall to keep apart the rival groups of demonstrators expected later in the day.

As the Senate session got under way, the main square outside was shut off by police and eerily deserted.

A government worker heading into the presidential palace, the Planalto, said the atmosphere inside was "very sad."

"Many of us are looking for new jobs. We don't want to serve under the vice president," said the woman, who asked not to be named.

Inside, senators made their cases in 15-minute blocks.

Senator Paulo Paim, a Rousseff ally, told journalists there would not be any "miracle," and that his side would have to fight to win more than one-third of the votes at the end of the impeachment trial.

He said the impeachment drive was "a symbol of Brazilian politicians' incompetence, to accept a tainted process against a president they know is honest."

But Mr Magno Malta, a senator of the opposition PR party, said impeachment was needed to heal a sick country.

"As soon as we vote for impeachment, the dollar will fall (strengthening Brazil's currency), our stock market will rise and the patient will breathe again," he said.

Ms Rousseff is accused of breaking budgetary laws by taking loans to boost public spending and mask the sinking state of the economy during her 2014 re-election campaign.

She says the accounting manoeuvres were standard practice in the past, and vowed on Tuesday to use "all means" to fight her ouster.

Workers' Party faithful on Tuesday burned tires and blocked roads in Brasilia and other cities in a potential taste of more street trouble to come.

Protesters again put up roadblocks on Wednesday morning in the economic capital, Sao Paulo, before they were dispersed.

Seeking to hamstring the center-right leader, Ms Rousseff's allies have asked the top electoral court to bar Temer from appointing his own ministers.

But analysts say Ms Rousseff's fightback probably comes too late and that she burned many of her political bridges before the crisis erupted with an awkward style and inability to negotiate.

The Senate impeachment trial could last months, running through the Olympics, which open in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 5 - the first Games to be held in South America.