Brazil's embattled President Rousseff vows long battle against impeachment

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff calls attempts to impeach her 'a coup', as the Senate gears up to vote after a heavy defeat in the lower house of Congress.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaks during a press conference at Planalto Palace, on April 18, 2016.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaks during a press conference at Planalto Palace, on April 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BRASÍLIA (AFP) - Embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff vowed to wage a "long" fight against impeachment as Congress moved closer to putting her on trial in a deepening political crisis.

The 68-year-old leftist leader was in a combative mood in her first public response since the lower house of Congress overwhelmingly voted late Sunday to send her case to the Senate.

"I am outraged by the decision," Ms Rousseff told a news conference on Monday (April 18) carried live on television.

She invoked her survival story under Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s, when she was tortured as a young member of a violent guerrilla group.

"I have strength, spirit and courage. I will not be beaten, I will not be paralysed. I will continue to fight and I will fight as I did all my life," she said.

"This is not the beginning of the end. The battle has begun. This fight will be very long and memorable," she said.

Ms Rousseff faces charges of illegally manipulating government accounts during her 2014 reelection to mask the scale of budget holes.

But she said that deputies in the house had failed to provide any evidence that she had committed an impeachable crime, calling the process instead a "coup d'etat."

She branded her Vice-President Michel Temer a traitor who had conspired against her. He would take over if she is impeached.

Monday's newspapers printed pictures of Mr Temer smiling as he watched the vote.

The president spoke after House Speaker Eduardo Cunha personally delivered the impeachment documents to the Senate.

Senators are expected to vote by mid-May on whether to open the proceedings and suspend Ms Rousseff for up to six months.

The political showdown comes as Latin America's biggest economy is mired in a deep recession and a corruption scandal at state oil giant Petrobras, with the Rio Olympics approaching in August.

After meeting with Mr Cunha, Senate President Renan Calheiros said the upper chamber would begin reading the impeachment documents on Tuesday but that there would be no rush.

"There are requests to speed up the process, but we won't be able to accelerate it in a way that appears hurried. We can't put it off either. We will defend the legal process," Mr Calheiros said.

Mr Cunha, on the other hand, wants the process to move quickly.

"Today we have a half-government and that's not good for anybody," said Mr Cunha, who like Mr Temer and Mr Calheiros, is a member of the centre-right PMDB party that abandoned Ms Rousseff's coalition.

All three face various allegations of misdeeds themselves.

Mr Lindbergh Farias, a senator from Ms Rousseff's Workers' Party, said the initial Senate vote should take place on May 11 and warned that his group would go to the Supreme Court if there's pressure to speed things up.

Mr Farias described the rowdy debate in the lower house of Congress as a "horror show."

The opposition threw celebratory confetti after getting well over two thirds of the majority needed to move the case forward, with 367 of 513 deputies voting "yes."

Surveys by Brazilian media indicate that the opposition has the simple majority necessary to open the trial in the 81-member Senate.

A two-thirds majority would be needed for her definitive ouster.

"Dilma Rousseff yesterday started to say goodbye to the presidency of Brazil," wrote the leading newspaper O Globo.

Ms Carla Selman, an analyst at IHS Country Risk, a consultancy, said that events could move quickly given the decisive nature of the lower house vote.

"This is likely to accelerate a vote in the Senate, where the pro-impeachment camp is also expected to win," she said.

Financial markets have been betting heavily on Ms Rousseff's exit and the advent of a more business-friendly government to kickstart Brazil's economy.

The worst recession for decades and political paralysis in the capital has prevented reforms that might attract back foreign investors, scared off by Brazil's junk credit ratings.

While Mr Temer is already eyeing his potential presidency, he would inherit a country wallowing in economic disarray and a dysfunctional political scene where Ms Rousseff's Workers' Party vows revenge.

"It will not be easy" for Mr Temer, said independent political analyst Andre Cesar. "It will be a nightmare."

Ms Rousseff's backers also point out that Mr Temer could face impeachment himself because he backed her policies as vice-president, while his PMDB party's other heavyweights, Mr Cunha and Mr Calheiros, also face corruption allegations.

Huge opposition rallies in recent months have played a big role in turning pressure against Rousseff into an unstoppable avalanche.

Now anger on the streets could again play a role as the stakes in the crisis rise even higher.

"Whoever loses will keep protesting in the streets," said Mr Sylvio Costa, who heads the specialist politics website Congresso en Foco.

"What's certain is that the crisis will not end today."