SÃO PAULO — The end may be in sight for Dilma Rousseff’s presidency after impeachment proceedings were authorized on Wednesday by the speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress.
Eduardo Cunha’s decision to fire the starting pistol marks a first tentative step in a process that, even if supported by Congress, could take months, though some analysts suggest the president may feel forced to resign before it is completed.
Cunha accepted one of several requests to begin impeachment that had been in his office for weeks. They were widely reported to have been put on ice amid back room bargaining in which he promised to protect the president if his speakership was not threatened by accusations of corruption against him.
The motion he accepted this Wednesday was brought on behalf of a coalition of opposition parties by a group of prominent lawyers, including Hélio Bicudo, who founded and then deserted Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party, the PT.
It is based on accusations that Rousseff authorized questionable fiscal maneuvers relating to the country’s accounts. These include so-called “backpedaling” whereby funds are taken from public banks to cover budgetary shortfalls but their repayment is deliberately delayed.
Brazil’s top accounts court recently told Congress that it should reject the government’s 2014 accounts over such maneuvers, which it said were used to maintain social spending ahead of the presidential poll in which Rousseff narrowly won re-election. Whether the practice constitutes an impeachable crime is at the center of the impeachment debate.
Aécio Neves, the main opposition candidate whom Rousseff defeated in last year’s election, said on Twitter that he supported the proposal. “Everyone in Brazil must obey the law, particularly the President,” he wrote.
Rousseff went on national television on Wednesday evening to say that she was “outraged” to learn of the news but remained “calm.”
“The reasons behind this motion are inconsistent and unfounded,” Rousseff said. “I haven’t committed any wrongful act, nor am I suspected of a crime, of embezzling public funds.”
She was referring to accusations made against Cunha who allegedly held bribe money in Swiss accounts from a vast kickback scheme at Brazilian state-run oil giant Petrobras that has brought that country politically and economically to its knees.
A parliamentary ethics committee is currently deliberating whether to recommend that legislators vote to expel Cunha as house speaker. The debate, however, had been put on hold because he was sitting on the decision over whether to launch the impeachment process against Rousseff.
When news came early on Wednesday that the committee members from the PT, Rousseff’s party, would be voting to recommend Cunha’s removal from the speakership, the stalemate broke down.
“Rousseff called Cunha’s bluff, and he got very upset about that decision from the ethics committee,” David Fletcher, professor emeritus at the University of Brasília, told VICE News.
However, the political scientist added that Cunha was also a “very pragmatic politician” who probably had a strategy planned out.
“Cunha may also have insider information that the Supreme Court is planning to expel him as speaker of the lower house of Congress, or that Operation Car Wash [into the Petrobras kickback scandal] had been given more plea bargain testimony against him,” he said.
Carlos Pereira, of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation think tank, said Cunha had been under immense pressure from the opposition to begin impeachment proceedings, but was now a “dead speaker walking” after waiting too long to make his move.
“It’s an interconnected game of individual political survival, and there are only two scenarios: either they both survive, or they both die,” he said of Cunha and Rousseff.
Both Pereira and Fleischer believe Cunha, who is also a deputy, will soon resign — perhaps as early as next week. If he steps down as speaker and accusations are dropped, he can remain a deputy and avoid an eight-year suspension from holding elected office.
Fleischer says Cunha was likely lining up someone else from his party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), to preside over the Chamber of Deputies and guarantee impeachment proceedings against Rousseff are seen through. The PMDB is a member of the governing coalition formed by the president, though it has distanced itself from the government in recent months.
Now that Cunha has greenlighted the impeachment request, a cross-party committee will be installed to analyze its merits. With Cunha selecting the committee’s members, the motion is likely to proceed to the floor for a vote where it would need a two-thirds majority to succeed.
As with former president Fernando Collor de Melo — who faced corruption charges in 1992 but resigned before impeachment could be completed — Rousseff may decide to jump before she is pushed.
The president may still be able to rally some support from social movements and unions associated with her party, but her personal approval rating is currently languishing at a paltry 10 percent due to the Petrobras scandal at the same time as the country’s recession appears set to bite ever harder.
“With the economy set to do worse still in the fourth quarter of this year, and the first half of next year at least, people won’t be able to take it anymore. There will be huge public protests,” Fleischer predicted.
“Public pressure for impeachment could make the PT pull the rug out from underneath her feet and pressure Rousseff to quit, perhaps by feigning ill health, before too much damage is done to the party,” he added.
“If she doesn’t go, the PT could be wiped out at the polls.”