Brazil's Senate votes to suspend President Dilma Rousseff ahead of impeachment trial

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during a meeting at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 10, 2016.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during a meeting at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on May 10, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

BRASILIA (REUTERS/AFP) - The Brazilian Senate voted on Thursday (May 12) in favour of putting President Dilma Rousseff on trial for breaking budget laws by 55 votes to 22.

When officially notified later on Thursday morning, Brazil's first female president will be suspended, ending 13 years of rule by the leftist Workers Party, and Vice-President Michel Temer will become acting president during her trial.

Only a simple majority of the 81-member Senate had been required to suspend Ms Rousseff for six months. A trial could now take months, with a two-thirds majority vote eventually needed to force Ms Rousseff, 68, from office altogether.

 

A nearly 22-hour debate in the Senate closed with the overwhelming vote against Ms Rouseff. Pro-impeachment senators broke into applause.

The writing was already on the wall for Brazil's first female president. And shortly after 3.15am local time in Brasilia, the 41st senator declared his intention to back impeachment ahead of the vote.

In the meantime, starting on Thursday, Mr Temer was to take over as interim president of Latin America's biggest country - ending 13 years of rule by Ms Rousseff's leftist Workers' Party.

Mr Temer, from the centre-right PMDB party, was preparing to announce a new government and says his priority is to address Brazil's worst recession in decades and end the paralysis gripping Congress during the battle over Rousseff.

A onetime Marxist guerrilla tortured under the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s, Rousseff has denounced the impeachment drive as a coup and vows to fight on during the trial.

Brazilian media reported she would be officially notified of the vote's result on Thursday and would make a statement to the nation. A crowd of supporters would gather outside to salute her as she drove off, a spokesman for her Workers' Party told AFP.

Due to host the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in less than three months, Brazil is struggling to stem economic disarray and handle the fallout from a corruption scandal reaching deep into the political and business elite.

The latest target of a sprawling probe into the graft scandal was Senator Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost to Ms Rousseff in the 2014 presidential elections. The Supreme Court authorized a probe into his alleged bribe taking and money laundering overnight.

The multiple crises have left the country divided between those blaming Ms Rousseff and those loyal to the Workers' Party, whose transformative social programs have lifted tens of millions of people from poverty.

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

But Ms Rousseff's chances of escape evaporated on Wednesday when the Supreme Court denied her attorney general's last-ditch attempt to stop the process.

National divisions were plain to see outside Congress, where police erected a giant metal fence to keep apart small rival groups of demonstrators. Riot police pepper sprayed a group of Ms Rousseff supporters.

Pro- and anti-impeachment protesters also scuffled briefly in Rio.

And as the Senate session got under way, the square outside - Brasilia's most famous landmark - was shut off by police and eerily deserted.

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

"Many of us are looking for new jobs," said the woman, who asked not to be named.

Senators made their cases in 15-minute blocks.

At the landmark of the 41st senator speaking in favor of impeachment, only 16 had stated the case for keeping Ms Rousseff in office, signaling a crushing defeat during the actual vote.

Senator Paulo Paim, a Rousseff ally, told journalists there would not be any "miracle" and that his side would concentrate on defeating impeachment when it comes to the vote at the end of the trial, which could be months away.

Senator Magno Malta, a senator from the opposition PR party, said impeachment was the bitter medicine needed to heal a sick country.

"As soon as we vote for impeachment, the dollar will fall (against the Brazilian real), our stock market will rise and the patient will breathe again," he said.

"It was the people who did this, who first took to the streets all over Brazil to say no more disdain of the truth, of ethics, of proper public administration," Mr Neves said during his speech.

But even some of those opposing Rousseff doubt that a change of power will resolve the country's underlying problems of corruption and mismanagement.

Pro-impeachment protester Sulineide Rodrigues said that even if she wanted Ms Rousseff out, she had few hopes for Mr Temer improving things.

"We don't think Temer will be any better," said Ms Rodrigues, 59.

"But you know what we'll do? We'll keep coming back and keep having impeachments until there's someone there who listens to us Brazilians."