Brazil's president edges closer to political abyss

Brazil's president edges closer to political abyss
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Brasília (AFP) - Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff edged closer on Monday to being ousted as an impeachment case moved quickly through Congress, deepening a political crisis in the recession-struck country.

House Speaker Eduardo Cunha handed over a slew of impeachment documents to the Senate hours after lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Sunday night for the 68-year-old leftist leader to face trial.

The Senate is now expected to vote by mid-May on whether to open the proceedings, at which point Rousseff would have to step aside, with her vice president taking over.

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 Cunha, Senate President Renan Calheiros said the upper chamber would begin reading the impeachment documents on Tuesday.

"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," Calheiros said.

Calheiros said Rousseff requested a meeting with him later Monday. The president was also expected to give her first public reaction shortly.

Cunha wants the process to move fast.

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

Lindbergh Farias, a senator from 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.

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

The marathon vote on Sunday ended with 367 of the 513 deputies in the lower house of Congress backing impeachment, with the opposition throwing celebratory confetti after getting well over the two thirds majority needed to move the case forward.

Surveys by Brazilian media indicate that the opposition has the simple majority necessary to open the trial in the 81-member Senate on charges that Rousseff illegally manipulated budget figures to mask a public deficit.

She would be suspended for six months during the proceedings and her definitive ouster would then have to be approved by a two-thirds majority.

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

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," Selman said.

Rousseff's attorney general, Jose Eduardo Cardozo said the charges were flimsy and amounted to "a coup against democracy."

- VP eyes big job -

Financial markets have been betting heavily on 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.

If, as many expect, the Senate goes on to start a trial, Vice President Michel Temer, who abandoned Rousseff to become a key opponent, will assume power. He would also stay on if the trial ended in impeachment.

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

But the celebrations could be short-lived, analysts say.

Temer would inherit a country wallowing in economic disarray and a dysfunctional political scene where Rousseff's Workers' Party vows revenge.

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

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

- Democracy question -

Analysts predict a long crisis rather than the radical fix that proponents of impeachment say would follow Rousseff's ouster.

Rousseff allies say the president would fight to the end against what they see as a bid by the opposition defeated in 2014 elections to take power by other means.

Jose Guimaraes, leader of the Workers' Party in the lower house, warned that "the fight will continue in the streets and in the Senate."

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 Sylvio Costa, who heads the specialist politics website Congresso en Foco. "What's certain is that the crisis will not end today."

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