Senators in Brazil began debate Wednesday on whether to oust President Dilma Rousseff, a movement that has built up steam and turned into a referendum on her leadership amid several crises facing Latin America’s largest nation.
If a simple majority of the 81 senators vote in favor, Rousseff will be suspended from office and Vice President Michel Temer will take over for up to six months pending a decision on whether to remove her from office permanently.
Senate President Renan Calheiros has said he wants the vote to happen Wednesday night.
The impeachment hinges on allegations Rousseff violated fiscal rules in handling the federal budget. But it’s also become largely a referendum on her presidency, buffeted by a deep recession and a vast kickback scheme in state oil company Petrobras.
Rousseff denies any wrongdoing and insists the impeachment amounts to a “coup” aimed at removing her left-leaning Workers’ Party, in power for 13 years.
The effort to impeach her began as a longshot bid, but has gained momentum to the point that many analysts consider Rousseff’s ouster all but a foregone conclusion.
“Dilma will be impeached for a variety of reasons,” said Marcos Troyjo, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “And the possibility of her coming back is zero.”
Brazilian newspapers’ polling of senators has found that around 50, many more than necessary, plan to vote for a trial. But it’s not clear that all of those would also vote to convict her. A tally by the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo suggests that so far only 41 senators are willing to remove Rousseff from office permanently — 13 short of the number needed.
The Senate action comes after the lower house voted 367-137 last month in favor of impeachment, an anti-Rousseff verdict so resounding that many Brazilians believe it will influence the Senate, where she has traditionally been seen to have more allies.
The impeachment battle has turned into something much larger than the legal charges against the president. Brazil is beset by a raft of corruption scandals connected to her party and is struggling with its worst recession since the 1930s. The president also is criticized for an inability to negotiate with other politicians in a country where personal relationships are paramount.
Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla group member who became an establishment insider, rode the coattails of her once wildly popular mentor and predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to win the presidency in 2010. Things were fine as the region’s largest economy roared, and in 2014 she was re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.
But just as prices for commodities that are the lifeblood of Brazil’s economy started tumbling, investigators began uncovering a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme at Petrobras, the state oil company. Worst of all for Rousseff, many of the people implicated are top officials in her party. The continuing probe has led to the conviction of dozens of the country’s elite, from politicians to the former president of Odebrecht, a major construction firm.
While Rousseff hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing in that scandal, many Brazilians hold her accountable because much of the alleged corruption happened during her administrations and those of Silva. The popularity of both has plunged.
Rousseff was chief of staff during Silva’s second term and before that she was minister of mines and energy, positions where she was in a position to know about the widespread graft at Petrobras, her critics say.
“The people involved abused and took advantage of the opportunity to steal money in an absurd way,” said Tiago Gomes da Silva, a 33-year-old standing in line at an unemployment office in Rio de Janeiro. “This had to come to an end. And the actual government is directly linked to this.”
As details of the corruption have emerged the last two years, the economy has continued downward. Gross domestic product is expected to contract 3.6 percent this year after an equally bad 2015. Both inflation and unemployment are around 10 percent and announcements of closures, from local factories to multinational chains like Wal-Mart, have become commonplace.
“The problem in Brazil was the inflation,” Carlos Antonio Porto Goncalves, economics professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, said of Rousseff’s first years as president. “And the government, to fight inflation, raised interest rates to extremely high levels so demand decreased, and the recession came.”
Mixed into it all has been Rousseff’s inability to work with others. She is known for bluntness and doesn’t have the charisma or back-slapping chumminess that analysts say is often necessary to build consensus and make deals.
“She is a woman with a knife in her boot,” said Alexandre Barros, a political consultant in Brasilia, using a popular phrase in Portuguese to describe tough women. “But she is not a politician.”