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Brazil's impeachment battle isn't over, but it's looking grim for President Rousseff

The lower house of the National Congress voted 367-137 in favor of impeachment Sunday night. The fight now shifts to Brazil’s Senate — and possibly to its streets, where Rousseff’s Workers Party will try to show it still has some muscle.

But the tally in Sunday’s vote does not bode well for Rousseff’s survival.

The president adamantly denies committing any impeachable offense, and she and her supporters equate the process with a “coup attempt.” Sunday’s televised vote looked more like a public hanging. Lawmakers lined up on the floor of the parliament to denounce her in a six-hour spectacle, then celebrated the final tally with taunts of “bye-bye darling.”

The sight left little doubt that Rousseff would not be in this predicament if she were not so widely disliked, blamed for the worst economic crisis in 80 years and compounding corruption scandals. Whether or not that unpopularity is a good reason to cut short her presidency is the question many Brazilians are struggling with.

Senators will decide, possibly as soon as next month, whether to accept the lower chamber’s motion to open impeachment proceedings against her. If the measure wins a simple majority in the 81-member Senate, Rousseff will be suspended and the Senate will essentially turn into a courtroom. Members would have 180 days to decide Rousseff’s fate, with a two-thirds majority needed to remove her.

Rousseff is not accused of personal corruption but of political trickery by allegedly manipulating public accounts to hide her administration’s budget woes. She would be the second Brazilian president impeached since the return of democracy in 1985 after 21 years of military rule; former President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992.

Mathieu Turgeon, a professor of political science at the University of Brasília, said the process “may bring short-term relief to a struggling economy and a dysfunctional government,” but it may end up undermining democratic stability in the long run.

“It carries very undesirable consequences for the consolidation of Brazil’s democratic institutions because she is being impeached on weak grounds,” Turgeon said. Her accounting maneuvers were “a common and tolerated practice used by former presidents and current governors,” he said.

The impeachment vote “could send a wrong signal about the possibility to remove fairly elected presidents when [they] become unpopular and/or unable to govern, even in the absence of much legal basis for such a procedure,” Turgeon said.

Supporters of Dilma Rousseff march toward Congress, the two towers in the background, on April 17.

Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Rousseff’s removal is unlikely to lead to further economic instability, however. Global financial markets have demonstrated a preference for her vice president, Michel Temer, who would become interim president if Rousseff is forced to step aside. Temer has promised to simplify Brazil’s tax code and enact pension reforms favored by many businesses.

“It is good for Brazilian markets in several ways,” said Dan Raghoonundon, Latin American portfolio manager at Janus Capital Group, an investment firm in Denver. “There will be more pragmatism in policymaking.”

“I think Temer is going to be given a grace period,” said Marcos Troyjo, a Brazil expert at Columbia University. “Both the markets and a large proportion of the public want to see Dilma go and will be much more welcoming.”

Attorney General José Cardozo, a Rousseff ally, told reporters Monday that the president would face “a different atmosphere” in Brazil’s Senate.

“The president is a strong woman … and knows how to fight a good fight,” he said. “And the fight she will wage now is the fight for democracy.”

Some in Brazil speculated Monday that Rousseff may call for new elections rather than face additional humiliation in Senate proceedings. This path may also appeal to Rousseff because so many of her rivals, including her former running mate, Temer, have such low public standing.

Rousseff’s coalition “will most likely push for a constitutional amendment that pushes for new elections — which holds more support than impeachment vis-à-vis public opinion,” Christopher Garman, managing director at the Eurasia consulting group, said in a statement Monday, adding that the Workers’ Party will also “take to the streets with organized labor.”

Left-wing groups have already threatened “land occupations, strikes, blocking highways and avenues, occupations of public buildings,” said Guilherme Boulos, national coordinator of the Homeless Workers Movement.

Large crowds cheered deliriously on São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue late Sunday night when opposition lawmaker Bruno de Araújo cast the crucial vote tipping the balance in favor of impeachment. He was lifted up on the shoulders of lawmakers as if he’d kicked a winning soccer goal.

But the rowdy scenes in Congress — with deputies shouting and shoving — were so indecorous at times that they seemed to alienate even some who supported Rousseff’s ouster.

“Reaching the end of this horror show I have just one sensation — that there is nothing to celebrate,” Inara Prudente, 51, wrote on social media after Sunday’s vote. “I don’t like Dilma, I don’t like her government, I don’t think she can govern alone the way things are. But what comes next is very frightening.”

© 2016, The Washington Post

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