Majority of Brazil senators back Rousseff impeachment

AFP , Thursday 12 May 2016

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during the opening of the National Conference of Women, in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, May 10, 2016 (Photo: AP)

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff prepared Thursday to cede power to her vice president-turned-enemy, Michel Temer, after a majority of the Senate backed suspending her and opening an impeachment trial.

With a marathon 17-hour debate continuing through the night ahead of a vote, the writing was already on the wall for Brazil's first female president.

Only a simple majority of the 81-member Senate is required to suspend Rousseff for six months pending judgement on charges that she broke budget-accounting laws. And shortly after 3:15 am in Brasilia (0615 GMT), the 41st senator declared his intention to back impeachment ahead of the vote.

A trial could take months, with a two-thirds majority vote eventually needed to force Rousseff, 68, from office altogether.

In the meantime, starting Thursday, Temer was to take over as interim president of Latin America's biggest country -- ending 13 years of rule by Rousseff's leftist Workers' Party.

Temer, from the center-right PMDB party, was preparing to announce a new government and says his priority is to address Brazil's worst recession in decades and end the paralysis gripping Congress during the battle over Rousseff.

A onetime Marxist guerrilla tortured under the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s, Rousseff has denounced the impeachment drive as a coup and vows to fight on during the trial.

Brazilian media reported she would be officially notified of the vote's result at 10:00 am (1300 GMT) Thursday and would make a statement to the nation. A crowd of supporters would gather outside to salute her as she drove off, a spokesman for her Workers' Party told AFP.

Due to host the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in less than three months, Brazil is struggling to stem economic disarray and handle the fallout from a corruption scandal reaching deep into the political and business elite.

The multiple crises have left the country divided between those blaming Rousseff and those loyal to the Workers' Party, whose transformative social programs have lifted tens of millions of people from poverty.

Senate President Renan Calheiros, who was overseeing the proceedings, told reporters that impeachment would be "traumatic."

But Rousseff's chances of escape evaporated Wednesday when the Supreme Court denied her attorney general's last-ditch attempt to stop the process.

National divisions were plain to see outside Congress, where police erected a giant metal fence to keep apart small rival groups of demonstrators. Riot police pepper sprayed a group of Rousseff supporters.

Pro- and anti-impeachment protesters also scuffled briefly in Rio.

And as the Senate session got under way, the square outside -- Brasilia's most famous landmark -- was shut off by police and eerily deserted.

A government worker heading into the presidential palace said the atmosphere inside was "very sad."

"Many of us are looking for new jobs," said the woman, who asked not to be named.

Senators made their cases in 15-minute blocks.

At the landmark of the 41st senator speaking in favor of impeachment, only 16 had stated the case for keeping Rousseff in office, signalling a crushing defeat during the actual vote.

Senator Paulo Paim, a Rousseff ally, told journalists there would not be any "miracle" and that his side would concentrate on defeating impeachment when it comes to the vote at the end of the trial, which could be months away.

"It was the people who did this, who first took to the streets all over Brazil to say no more disdain of the truth, of ethics, of proper public administration," said Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost the 2014 presidential election to Rousseff.

Magno Malta, a senator from the opposition PR party, said impeachment was the bitter medicine needed to heal a sick country.

"As soon as we vote for impeachment, the dollar will fall (against the Brazilian real), our stock market will rise and the patient will breathe again," he said.

But even some of those opposing Rousseff doubt that a change of power will resolve the country's underlying problems of corruption and mismanagement.

Pro-impeachment protester Sulineide Rodrigues said that even if she wanted Rousseff out, she had few hopes for Temer improving things.

"We don't think Temer will be any better," said Rodrigues, 59.

"But you know what we'll do? We'll keep coming back and keep having impeachments until there's someone there who listens to us Brazilians."

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