Rousseff vows to fight impeachment

  • 19/04/2016
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (AAP)
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (AAP)

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff vowed to fight impeachment tooth-and-nail in the Senate after a heavy defeat in the lower house of Congress raised the likelihood of an end to 13 years of leftist rule in Latin America's largest economy.

In a raucous vote late on Sunday that sparked jubilation among Rousseff's foes, the opposition comfortably surpassed the two-thirds majority needed to send Brazil's first female president to trial in the Senate on charges she manipulated budget accounts.

If the Senate votes by a simple majority to accept the case next month, as is expected, Rousseff will become the first Brazilian leader to be impeached for more than 20 years.

The crisis has paralysed the government as it struggles to revive the economy from its worst recession in decades.

It has also sparked a bitter struggle between Rousseff, a 68-year-old former Communist guerilla, and her Vice-President Michel Temer, 75, who would take power if she is impeached.

Addressing the nation on television, a combative Rousseff insisted that she had committed no impeachable crime and accused Temer of openly conspiring to topple her government in what she described as a 'coup'.

"While I am very saddened by this, I have the force, the spirit and the courage to fight this whole process to the end," Rousseff told the televised news conference.

"This is just the beginning of the battle, which will be long and drawn out."

Rousseff stands accused of a budgetary sleight of hand employed by many elected officials in Brazil: delaying payments to state lenders in order to artificially lower the budget deficit to boost her reelection bid in 2014.

Nevertheless, opinion polls show more than 60 percent of Brazilians support impeaching Rousseff, less than two years after the leftist leader narrowly won reelection.

Her popularity has been crushed by the recession and a vast graft scandal at state oil company Petrobras.

A Rousseff aide said the government would focus on clawing back support in the 81-seat Senate, where it lacks the simple majority needed to prevent the case being accepted for trial.

Given that it currently has the support of only 31 senators, the aide said the situation looked "very difficult".

The government has been looking to Senate Speaker Renan Calheiros, a crucial but fickle ally of Rousseff's, to delay the Senate vote as long as possible to give it time to negotiate.

However, Calheiros said on Monday he will remain neutral and will meet with party leaders in the Senate on Tuesday to define the calendar for the process.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from both sides of the impeachment battle took to the streets across Brazil on Sunday in peaceful protests, while millions watched the vote live on television.

The final tally was 367 votes cast in favour of impeachment, versus 137 against, and seven abstentions, while two MPs did not show up to vote.

More than half the MPs who decided her fate on Sunday are themselves under investigation for graft, fraud or electoral crimes, according to Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog in Brasilia.