BRASILIA — Brazil’s lower house speaker triggered impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday, setting the stage for a political battle that could see the country’s first female leader forced from office.
“It’s to authorize the initiation (of impeachment), not to judge on its merits,” Speaker Eduardo Cunha told journalists after officially accepting an impeachment petition, which now goes to a committee which will decide whether or not to authorize a trial.
The petition, filed by opposition figures and a founder of Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party, accuses her of illegally fiddling government accounts to mask budget holes.
Cunha’s decision sparks a long and complex procedure that has to pass several legal hurdles before a full impeachment trial leading to a possible vote against Rousseff.
Experts are divided on whether she would survive, many calling the case against her relatively weak, but also noting her deep unpopularity among voters and tepid backing even from deputies and senators in her ruling coalition.
“I take no pleasure in carrying out this act,” Cunha said. “I am profoundly sorry this is happening.”
Cunha’s decision comes as the powerful politician faces a fight for his own political life, with the lower house debating whether he should be removed from his post because of corruption charges.
While Rousseff and Cunha battle in Congress, Brazil is heading into an even deeper recession, with rising inflation and employment, a currency one third down over the year, and turmoil over a giant corruption scandal centered on state oil major Petrobras.
Officials said Tuesday that GDP had shrunk 4.5 percent year-on-year in the third quarter, prompting fears that the world’s seventh biggest economy is headed for the worst decline since the Great Depression of 1930-31.
With Cunha’s green light for impeachment, Rousseff’s allies and foes will enter a period of intense maneuvering.
A special commission with all parties represented proportionally will be formed with 15 days to decide on whether to proceed. If the answer is yes, the recommendation will go to the full lower house where two-thirds of deputies — 342 out of 513 — are required for impeachment to be upheld.
Rousseff would then be suspended while the Senate took up the trial. If the upper house voted by two thirds majority, Rousseff would have to resign.
Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who took over from once hugely popular Workers’ Party co-founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has barely 10 percent popularity ratings and is widely blamed for Brazil’s mounting woes.
However, she has repeatedly said she will fight impeachment, which she calls a “coup plot.” That charge is especially sensitive in a country that was under military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985 — and from a woman tortured under the regime.
On paper, her ruling coalition would easily fend off impeachment, holding 314 of the deputies in the lower house. But how many of those votes she can count on at this point is not clear.
Brazil has faced an impeachment scandal before. In 1992, then president Fernando Collor de Mello stepped down ahead of his impeachment on corruption charges.
After staying out of politics during a period of disqualification, he returned as a senator. But in an illustration of Brazil’s current corrupt political environment, he was this year again accused of corruption in the Petrobras scandal.
This story is developing. Visit ticotimes.net for updates.