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Brasília (AFP) - The impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff should go ahead, the representative for a congressional commission said Wednesday, bringing the country's political crisis a step closer to a showdown.
Jovair Arantes, rapporteur for a special impeachment commission in the lower house of Congress, said he had concluded the "legal admissibility" of the case against the leftist president.
"The magnitude and scope of the violations made by the president of the republic constitute a serious abuse," he said.
The decision was given in a lengthy report that Arantes read aloud, live on national television, to the 65-member impeachment commission, sometimes interrupted by deputies shouting and arguing.
Although Arantes' decision was non-binding and mostly symbolic, it meant the opposition drew first blood just as an increasingly bitter battle to remove Brazil's first woman president from office gathers pace.
On Monday, the full commission will vote its recommendation. Then on April 18, the lower house of Congress meets to hold a decisive vote on whether impeachment will go ahead.
"Today's vote was expected," said Mendonca Filho, a deputy from the conservative, pro-impeachment Democratas party. "Now we have to find out the position of the whole commission ... and then we move on to the main battle in the full chamber."
Rousseff is accused of presiding over large-scale fiddling of government accounts to mask the depth of budgetary shortfalls during her reelection in 2014.
The president -- highly unpopular because of a severe recession and a giant corruption scandal enveloping Brazil's political elite -- says she has committed no impeachment-worthy crime and claims she is the victim of a coup attempt.
Ze Geraldo, from Rousseff's Workers' Party, shrugged off the setback, telling AFP, "We are already prepared to lose in the commission, given its make-up."
- Blow, counter blow -
Intrigue is rife about which way Congress will lean on the 18th.
The lower chamber's mood swings almost daily, with Rousseff sometimes appearing to have run out of allies before winning an unexpected boost.
Rousseff's ruling coalition took a huge hit last week when the PMDB party, headed by Vice President Michel Temer, went into opposition. Her Workers' Party is now scrambling to build a new alliance.
Rousseff's influential predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is holed up in a hotel in the capital Brasilia leading negotiations with parties and individual deputies.
The key bargaining chip still left in Rousseff's hands are ministerial posts and hundreds of other government jobs that had been given previously to the PMDB.
On Tuesday, the murky political landscape entered extraordinary new territory when a Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of a bid to also impeach Temer, the vice president, who has become a leading opponent of Rousseff -- and would replace her if she had to step down.
Temer is accused of participating in the same fiscal juggling as Rousseff.
Although full-scale proceedings against Temer are highly unlikely to get underway soon and could still be thrown out by the full Supreme Court, the judge's ruling gave some relief to Rousseff.
On Wednesday, however, she suffered a new blow when the powerful agricultural industry federation, the CNA, urged her to leave office, saying the government "does not recognize or understand the real nature of the problems facing the country."
- Number crunching -
Rousseff, 68, needs at least 172 votes against impeachment or abstentions in the lower house. The opposition needs two-thirds of the chamber to vote in favor, or 342 out of the total 513.
The PMDB defection stripped her of important votes, but so far she has apparently kept hold of other parts of her coalition, notably most of the Progressive Party, known as the PP.
The PP has 51 lower house deputies and 40 of them oppose impeachment, party leader Ciro Nogueira told Globo newspaper.
If the motion passes in the lower house, then an impeachment trial starts in the Senate, ending with another vote in which the upper house would need a two-thirds majority to remove Rousseff from office.
According to a survey updated late Wednesday by Estadao newspaper, 245 congressional deputies are currently in favor of impeachment, 110 are against, 58 are undecided and 11 did not want to reveal their position. A further 89 could not be reached.
Geraldo, the Workers' Party deputy, said the president expects to defeat impeachment either by getting the 172 votes or preventing a sufficient majority on the other side.
"If it's hard for us to get that 172, then it's just as hard for them too," he told AFP.