BRASILIA, Brazil – The lower chamber of Brazil’s Congress on Friday began a debate on whether to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, a question that underscores deep polarization in Latin America’s largest country and most powerful economy.
The crucial vote is slated for Sunday on whether to send the measure to the Senate, where an impeachment trial would take place, prompting the president’s suspension from office.
The atmosphere in the lower Chamber of Deputies was electric at the start of the session, as Rousseff’s critics festooned themselves with yellow and green ribbons and brandished placards reading “Impeachment Now!”
Lawmakers backing impeachment allege Rousseff’s administration violated fiscal rules, using sleight of hand accounting in a bid to shore up public support. However, many of those pushing for impeachment face grave accusations of corruption themselves, which government supporters are quick to brand as hypocrisy.
Rousseff’s defenders insist she did nothing illegal, and say similar accounting techniques were used by previous presidents.
Miguel Reale Junior, author of the impeachment petition, said Rousseff’s maneuvering directly led to the ills plaguing the country today, such as high inflation and periodic devaluations of the Brazilian real against the U.S. dollar.
“Are you going to tell me that isn’t a crime?” Junior told the body, adding that the impeachment push was not “a coup,” as government supporters contend.
Solicitor General Jose Eduardo Cardozo argued that lawmakers should only consider the actual accusations against Rousseff.
He warned that impeachment would constitute an act of “violence without precedent” against democracy and the Brazilian people.
Flanked by people holding signs showing the constitution being ripped apart, Cardozo insisted the whole impeachment process was an act of personal vengeance against Rousseff by the house Speaker Eduardo Cunha.
Cunha, Cardozo alleged, was striking out at Rousseff for refusing to help him avoid an ethics probe into allegations he received millions in bribes from the sprawling corruption scheme in the Petrobras oil company.
“Violence has been committed against the democratic state,” Cardozo shouted, gesticulating wildly.
The political infighting has dragged on for months, hamstringing attempts to help jumpstart the economy and hanging up other measures observers say are crucial to getting the country back on track.
Leonardo Picciano, a congressman from Rio de Janeiro state who’s gone against the pro-impeachment position of his party, said the most important thing for the country is not whether Rousseff remains in power, but rather that the situation get decided soon.
“This issue has been an open wound for a long time,” he told The Associated Press in a corridor of the lower house. “It must be closed on Sunday, whatever the result.”
But chances of moving beyond the impasse soon are slim.
The pro-impeachment camp needs two-thirds of the 513 votes in the lower house, or 342 votes, to send the proceedings to the Senate for a possible trial. If the Senate agrees to take it up, Rousseff would be forced to step down until the measure is voted on. The Senate would have six months for a trial.
Meanwhile Friday, the respected Estado de S. Paulo newspaper printed documents suggesting Speaker Cunha had received more than $4 million in bribes as part of a Rio de Janeiro port renovation project tied to the August Olympics. The documents are evidence in a plea bargain deal by Ricardo Pernambuco Junior, of the Carioca Engenharia construction company that is deeply embroiled in the so-called Car Wash kickbacks-for-contracts scheme at Petrobras.
The report said Pernambuco told investigators that under the deal, the company has to pay Cunha 1.5 percent of the total cost of the contract, a sum of about 13 million Brazilian reals. Pernambuco handed over spreadsheets showing deposits made for Cunha in several banks in Switzerland, Israel and other countries.
The documents add to evidence against Cunha, who repeatedly denied any wrongdoing — and who has been the driving force behind the impeachment.
While Brazilian legislators and Cabinet ministers enjoy substantial protections from prosecution, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to accept money laundering and other charges against Cunha in a separate case related to the Petrobras scheme. He could also be stripped of his mandate by an ethics committee in the house over allegations he lied about not having bank accounts abroad.
But while the ethics committee proceeding against Cunha has limped along, and is far from reaching a conclusion, the speaker has pushed the impeachment proceeding against Rousseff forward swiftly — prompting many critics to denounce the process as deeply flawed.
Friday’s drama comes as Brazil is facing problems on many fronts: the economy is expected to contract nearly 4 percent this year, the Zika virus, which causes birth defects, has become a health crisis in poor, northeastern states and the country is less than four months away from hosting the Summer Olympic Games.
The extraordinary session began just hours after the Supreme Court denied a government motion to annul the impeachment proceedings. Cardozo had argued that the process had been “contaminated” because lawmakers were considering things that went outside the accusations, such as the country’s worst recession in decades and the Petrobras scandal.
After a seven-hour session, the justices decided 8-2 early Friday that they should not be involved at this stage of the process.
Both government and opposition forces say they have enough votes to win Sunday, but daily counts by Brazilian media suggest the opposition is much closer to victory.