This Thursday, brazilian senators voted overwhelmingly to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and open an impeachment trial, effectively tossing her leftist Workers’ Party from office after 13 years in power.
Rousseff is accused of improperly using billions of dollars in loans from government banks to patch budget gaps and fund popular social programs. But the vote reflected a broader referendum on her unpopular leadership amid Brazil’s worst economic crisis in 80 years and corruption scandals that have swept up much of the country’s political elite.
The political showdowns may be far from over in South America’s largest nation.
Rousseff, the country’s first female president, vowed that she will fight on, calling the impeachment vote “dirty,” “fraudulent” and “a coup.”
Rousseff, a former leftist militant who was jailed and tortured as a young woman by Brazil’s military dictatorship, said her suspension was “an injustice that hurt more than torture.”
“I will fight with all the available legal tools to serve out the term I was elected to,” she said. “I may have made mistakes, but I committed no crimes.”
Rousseff’s chances for a comeback are remote. Her defiant statements came after an all-night debate that ended with 55 of Brazil’s 81 senators voting to put her on trial, far more than the simple majority needed to oust her. Under Brazilian law, she is now suspended for up to 180 days during the trial.
The vote, and Rousseff’s promise to fight, suggest that the political turmoil is likely to continue as Brazil will take the world spotlight this summer: The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is less than three months away.
Her accusers say Rousseff had systematically deceived lawmakers and the public about the state of the country’s finances to boost her reelection prospects in 2014 and conceal her mismanagement of the economy. The claims only cover her present term, however, and not the reelection bid.
Just hours after the vote, she insisted again that her predecessors used the same bookkeeping tactics. “It was not a crime in their time. It’s not a crime in mine,” she said.
But her accusers say her accounting tricks involved far greater sums than anything in the past, and Brazilian senators will now decide whether her actions constitute a “crime of responsibility” under Brazilian law.
The early-morning vote Thursday was the equivalent of impeachment in most democracies. But legal experts say that, in the Brazilian context, a politician is only considered “impeached” if found guilty.
Regardless of the terms used, the vote was the clearest sign yet of the once-popular Rousseff’s political collapse.
The 55 votes against her exceeded the two-thirds majority that would eventually be needed to permanently remove her at the end of the impeachment trial.
One of the last lawmakers to address the chamber, Sen. Romero Jucá, likened Rousseff’s government to the Titanic.
“We know that the Titanic will sink if it keeps going in the direction it’s going,” he said.
Rousseff’s removal is a once-unthinkable blow to her Workers’ Party, which presided over years of prosperity and robust social-welfare spending that lifted more than 30 million Brazilians out of poverty. Now Rousseff and her party are paying for Brazil’s crash.
It also marked the culmination of months of legal and political maneuvering by Rousseff’s administration and its opponents, a process that has produced a gripping drama that has left Brazilians frustrated and increasingly worried that their country is sliding into long-term dysfunction.
Weary-looking lawmakers lightly applauded the final vote on the Senate floor.
The outcome was nothing like the raucous celebration that took place when Brazil’s lower house of congress voted to impeach Rousseff last month, and her opponents broke into chants of “bye-bye darling.”
Rousseff, 68, is one of the few top Brazilian political figures not under suspicion of bribe-taking or other corruption, although her party is accused of involvement in dirty deals.
That difference had emboldened Rousseff’s defenders and raised doubts among international observers about the legitimacy of the impeachment effort. Some independent analysts and Rousseff allies called the proceedings an excuse to get rid of an unpopular leader and a sign of political immaturity in a country whose democracy was restored in 1985 after two decades of military rule.
Attorney General Jose Cardozo, who is leading her defense, said lawmakers were condemning “an honest and innocent woman.”
“All the previous governments did the same thing,” he said of the budget law offenses Rousseff is accused of. “Where is the bad faith of the president of the republic?” he shouted.
Rousseff will be forced to step down Thursday upon formal notification of the Senate’s decision. Vice President Michel Temer would assume the presidency on an interim basis, and he would serve out the rest of Rousseff’s term if she were found guilty.
The vote puts Rousseff among a small number of democratically elected leaders who have been impeached. They include former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who was impeached in the House in 1998 but acquitted in a Senate trial.
The procedure is not unfamiliar to Brazilians. In 1992, then-President Fernando Collor de Mello resigned after he was put on trial by the Senate on corruption charges. He later returned to politics and won a Senate seat. On Wednesday, he said Rousseff’s government was “in ruins.”
One Rousseff opponent compared her presidency to “gangrene” sickening Brazil. “If we amputate the leg, we save the body,” Sen. Magno Malta said.
Rousseff narrowly won reelection in 2014, but recent polls show that her approval rating has slumped to about 10 percent. Critics say her brusque personal style and disdain for retail politics added to her isolation by turning onetime allies against her.
She made no speeches or public statements Wednesday as the senate debate opened and was photographed strolling through the grounds of the presidential palace in exercise clothing, among long-necked rheas — large, flightless birds native to South America.
By Nick Miroff, Dom Phillips & Brian Murphy