BRASILIA, (Reuters) – Brazil’s Senate voted today to put leftist President Dilma Rousseff on trial in a historic decision brought on by a deep recession and a corruption scandal that will now confront her successor, Vice President Michel Temer.
With Rousseff to be suspended during the Senate trial for allegedly breaking budget rules, the centrist Temer will take the helm of a country that again finds itself mired in political and economic volatility after a recent decade of prosperity.
The 55-22 vote ends more than 13 years of rule by the left-wing Workers Party, which rose from Brazil’s labour movement and helped pull millions of people out of poverty before seeing many of its leaders tainted by corruption investigations.
Fireworks rang out in cities across Brazil after the vote at the end of a 20-hour session in the Senate. Police had briefly clashed with pro-Rousseff demonstrators in Brasilia yesterday, exchanging volleys of tear gas and rocks.
Rousseff, a 68-year-old economist and former Marxist guerrilla who was Brazil’s first female president, is unlikely to be acquitted in a trial that could last as long as six months.
A two-thirds majority is needed in the Senate to convict her but the scale of her defeat on Thursday showed that the opposition already has the support it needs.
“Impeachment is a tragedy for the country … It is a bitter though necessary medicine,” opposition Senator Jose Serra, tipped to become foreign minister under Temer, said during the debate. “But having the Rousseff government continue would be a bigger tragedy. Brazil’s situation would be unbearable.”
The impeachment process began in the lower house of Congress in December. Rousseff has denied any wrongdoing and called her impeachment a “coup”.
Temer, a 75-year-old centrist and constitutional scholar who spent decades in Brazil’s Congress, now faces the challenge of restoring economic growth and calm at a time when Brazilians, increasingly polarized, are questioning whether their institutions can deliver on his promise of stability.
In addition to a towering budget deficit, equal to more than 10 percent of its annual economic output, Brazil is suffering from rising unemployment, plummeting investment and a projected economic contraction of more than 3 percent this year.
“Only major reforms can keep Brazil from moving from crisis to crisis,” says Eduardo Giannetti da Fonseca, an economist and author in São Paulo who has written extensively about the country’s socioeconomic problems.
But those changes, including an overhaul of pension, tax and labor laws and a political reform to streamline fragmented parties in a mercenary Congress, could remain elusive at a time of turmoil.
While opposition supporters celebrated in the central Paulista Avenue of Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, many Brazilians are concerned that the end of Workers Party rule could bring back bad times for the poor, who have made great strides in the last decade.
“Has Dilma made mistakes? Of course. But the Workers Party has done so much for us, for the people,” said Benedito Polongo, a 63-year-old janitor outside a shiny Brasilia business center, who said he had no job or bank account before the party came to power. “I fear that those who come after her will erase all that has been done for the poor.”
Rousseff’s government made a last-ditch effort to annul her impeachment but it was rejected by the Supreme Court yesterday.
Senate Speaker Renan Calheiros said Rousseff will be notified of the upper house’s decision this morning and will have to leave Brasilia’s Planalto presidential palace, though she can continue to live in her official residence, have a staff and use an Air Force plane as suspended head of state.
Rousseff will make a statement at 10 a.m. local (1300 GMT), aides said, and will then depart Planalto to address a rally of supporters accompanied by her mentor, Workers Party founder and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The Official Gazette on Thursday showed that Rousseff dismissed her cabinet, including the sports minister, who is in final preparations for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August. The central bank governor, who has ministerial rank, was not included in the decree.
The move was designed to frustrate a smooth transition for Temer, whom Rousseff deems a traitor because of his efforts, as leader of the party that was her main ally in Congress, to unravel that coalition and force party colleagues to resign from government posts.
Temer plans to swear in new ministers this afternoon and is promising pro-market policies to bring Brazil’s budget deficit under control, rein in inflation and get the economy growing again.
Brazilian markets have for weeks rallied as investors welcomed the likely dismissal of a president they believe crippled the economy, were largely unchanged on Wednesday.
Wild cards remain for Temer himself, including still-pending investigations by an electoral court into financing for his and Rousseff’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Then there is the far-reaching kickback probe around state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, which has ensnared dozens of corporate and political chieftains and fueled the discontent that led to Rousseff’s impeachment.
Rousseff, energy minister and chief of staff to her predecessor before taking office in 2011, was chairwoman of Petrobras at the time when much of the graft occurred.
She has not been accused of corruption, but the scandal at Petrobras encouraged opposition lawmakers to oust her for disguising the size of the government’s budget deficit in the lead-up to her re-election.
Temer has not been accused of wrongdoing in the scandal either, but some of his allies and party colleagues have. Prosecutors say they are far from finished with the probe.
Though many lawmakers have expressed their desire to join forces and get on with a recovery upon Rousseff’s exit, dozens of parties are jockeying for power in the Temer government and angling to position themselves for new elections in 2018.
Temer has indicated he will not run for president in 2018. A recent survey from polling group Datafolha showed just 1 percent of those surveyed would vote for him, and other polls show around 60 percent of Brazilians want him impeached too.
“Temer may have a honeymoon, but let’s not forget this was a shotgun wedding,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “Reforms aren’t easy at the best of times and these are for sure not the easiest.”