Brazil Senate committee recommends Rousseff impeachment

BRASÍLIA, Brazil – A Brazilian Senate committee voted Friday, May 6, to recommend starting an impeachment trial against President Dilma Rousseff, who now faces being suspended from office in less than a week.

The special committee's decision was non-binding but marked the last formal stage before the full Senate votes Wednesday, May 11, on whether to put the leftist leader on trial.

"The case now goes to the full federal Senate," announced opposition Senator Raimundo Lira.

With the Senate considered almost certain to open the trial next week, Rousseff is preparing to step aside for up to 6 months while the 81 senators decide her fate, plunging Brazil into ever deeper political infighting.

As soon as Rousseff is suspended Vice President Michel Temer, a center-right politician whose party recently broke off its shaky alliance with Rousseff's Workers' Party, would become interim president.

At the end of the trial, which could take months, a two thirds majority would be needed to remove Rousseff from office.

The impeachment battle, a crumbling economy, and corruption probes against dozens of leading politicians and business executives have left Latin America's biggest country in turmoil ahead of the Rio Olympics this August.

The impeachment is based on accusations that Rousseff made illegal accounting maneuvers to mask the depth of Brazil's economic troubles during her tight 2014 reelection victory.

The country's first female president says the charges are trumped up to turn the impeachment process into a coup d'etat and that she will not give in.

"I have the nature of someone who resists and I will resist to the last day," she said Friday at a ceremony where she handed over housing to the poor, one of the Workers' Party's signature policies – and one she claimed would be threatened by her departure.

Corruption whirlpool

The Senate vote and debate next week is expected to take more than 20 hours, likely stretching into Thursday, Brazilian media reports said. Rousseff's suspension could take effect Friday, according to current estimates.

She would be allowed to remain in her presidential residence but will lose access to the executive offices and will be on half pay. There are still questions over her exact status, including whether she will be able to use Air Force planes for travel.

While Rousseff fights for her political survival, both her closest allies and some of her most bitter enemies are being sucked into an ever deepening corruption scandal centered on state oil company Petrobras.

On Thursday, the architect of the impeachment drive, lawmaker Eduardo Cunha, was suspended by the Supreme Court from his post as speaker of the lower house on grounds that he was obstructing a Petrobras-related corruption probe against him.

Cunha was one of Brazil's most powerful political operators and allied to Temer. His probable replacement in the speaker's post is another lawmaker accused of participating in the Petrobras embezzlement ring.

Temer himself is not being probed in the Petrobras affair, the chief prosecutor said this week, despite allegations made against him by a key witness in the government's case.

However, in yet another twist Thursday it emerged that Temer could be barred from participating in any elections for eight years because he has been found guilty of violating campaign finance rules. The ban would not affect Temer's ability to take the presidency next week since no election is involved.

Paralysis

Meanwhile, the government and Congress have all but come to a standstill, with measures to try to drag the economy out of its worst recession in decades abandoned.

On Thursday, Fitch followed other rating agencies in downgrading Brazil's credit score.

It was already classed as speculative or "junk" grade and on Thursday Fitch shifted the rating down to BB from BB+.

The economy shrank 3.8% last year and is forecast to wither away at the same rate this year before flattening out with zero growth in 2017. That's a huge drop from the 7.5% growth Rousseff inherited when she first took office in 2010, although a big reason for the decline was the end of high commodity prices around the world.

Markets are betting on a Temer presidency breaking the deadlock in Congress and ushering Brazil back out of the red. – Damian Wroclavsky, AFP / Rappler.com