Rousseff defense begins in impeachment trial

Brazilian suspended President Dilma Rousseff speaks during a Workers' Party rally in Brasilia on Aug 24, 2016.
Brazilian suspended President Dilma Rousseff speaks during a Workers' Party rally in Brasilia on Aug 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

BRASILIA (AFP) - Brazil's suspended president Dilma Rousseff is to begin her defense case on Friday (Aug 26) in the Senate impeachment trial that could see the one-time leftist guerrilla ejected from office within days.

Ms Rousseff, 68, is accused of breaking the law when she took unauthorised loans to bridge budget gaps during her 2014 re-election.

Allies, including former economy minister Nelson Barbosa, will argue that the budgetary maneuvers were common practice in previous governments and had never been considered illegal.

Rousseff loyalist Senator Gleisi Hoffman told AFP she thought that impeachment could still be defeated.

"I think it's possible to reverse the process because there are senators who even though they've shown they favor impeachment have said they could change their minds," she said.

The hearings began on Thursday when the Senate heard from opponents of the first woman to lead Latin America's biggest economy.

Now the trial is slowly building to Monday when Ms Rousseff herself will testify in a piece of political theater that could determine whether 13 years of rule by her leftist Workers' Party comes to a sudden end.

Senate leaders expect a final vote on her fate to take place in the first part of next week and Rousseff opponents are confident they will muster the necessary two-thirds majority to bring her down.

Senator Raimundo Lira, a strong backer of impeachment, told AFP that senators "have already made up their minds and I don't think there will be any change at the vote."

If Ms Rousseff goes, her former vice president turned bitter enemy, Michel Temer, will be sworn in, signaling a sharp shift for Brazil to the right.

The left and right are now bitterly divided, heralding further instability for a country already struggling to resurrect its once buoyant economy.

Ms Rousseff's ally and predecessor, Workers' Party founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said in a speech in Rio that "a week of national shame" had begun.

Ms Rousseff, who was tortured and imprisoned by the 1970s dictatorship for membership in a Marxist urban guerrilla group, calls the process a coup.

She said late Wednesday that she'd resist "with the same force that I fought against the military dictatorship".

But her opponents see the drama in equally stark terms.

"Impeachment of Rousseff is a great victory for democracy, a liberation for our country from the left which wanted to hang on to power," said Senator Janaina Paschoal, one of the authors of the impeachment petition against the president.

A huge metal barricade was set up on the esplanade outside Congress to separate rival demonstrators, with police saying there could be large protests Monday.

Mr Temer, who has served as acting president since May, is hardly more popular than Ms Rousseff. A recent opinion poll found only 14 per cent of Brazilians thought he was doing a good job.

However, his centre-right coalition and choice of market-friendly ministers have raised expectations that he can get the economy back on track.

The economy shrank 3.8 per cent in 2015 and is forecast to drop about 3.3 per cent again this year, a historic recession. Inflation is at about nine per cent and unemployment at 11 per cent.

"I agree that Dilma must leave power. Leaders must be responsible for their actions," said Ms Mara Campos, 50, waiting at a bus stop in Brasilia.

"But I am very worried because this trial is traumatic."