18 Apr 2016

Brazil's lower house backs impeachment

3:43 pm on 18 April 2016

Brazil's lower house has voted to back the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff for breaking budget laws.

Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff Photo: AFP

As thousands of pro- and anti-impeachment protesters demonstrated outside Congress, the opposition comfortably surpassed the two-thirds majority needed to send Mrs Rousseff for trial in the Senate on charges of manipulating budget accounts.

The result is a major step towards potentially ending 13 years of Workers' Party rule in the divided nation.

Brazil's presidential chief of staff Jaques Wagner said the government was confident the Senate would dismiss the impeachment.

Tonight's vote was a setback for Brazilian democracy and was "orchestrated" by her opponents who never accepted her re-election victory in 2014, Mr Wagner said in a statement.

The voting took place in a raucous atmosphere, with opposition legislators crowding around the microphone and cheering every vote against the president. At least two deputies let off poppers full of confetti as they voted for impeachment.

If the Senate decides there are legal grounds to hear the case against Mrs Rousseff - a decision expected in early May - she would be suspended from office and the Vice-President, Michel Temer, would take over.

If she was found guilty, Mr Temer would serve out Mrs Rousseff's term until 2018.

Deep divisions

The impeachment battle comes during Brazil's worst recession since the 1930s, and is thought to have divided the country of 200 million people more deeply than at any time since the end of its military dictatorship in 1985.

It has also sparked a bitter battle between Mrs Rousseff, 68, and Mr Temer, 75, that appears likely to destabilise any future government and plunge Brazil into months of uncertainty.

Despite anger at rising unemployment, Mrs Rousseff's Workers' Party can rely on strong support among millions of working-class Brazilians, who credit its welfare programs with pulling their families out of poverty during the past decade.

"The fight is going to continue now in the streets and in the federal Senate," said Jose Guimaraes, the leader of the Workers' Party in the lower house, conceding that the government had lost today's vote.

"We lost because the coup-mongers were stronger."

Opinion polls have suggested more than 60 percent of Brazilians support impeaching Mrs Rousseff, who is Brazil's first female president.

While she has not been accused of corruption, Mrs Rousseff's government has been tainted by a vast graft scandal at state oil company Petrobras and by the economic recession.

The impeachment battle has paralysed the activity of government in Brasilia, just four months before the country is due to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and as it seeks to battle an epidemic of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in newborns.

Critics of the impeachment process say it has become a referendum on Mrs Rousseff's popularity - currently languishing in single digits - which sets a worrying precedent for ousting unpopular leaders in the future.

They note Mrs Rousseff has been accused of a budgetary sleight-of-hand commonly employed by many elected officials in Brazil.

Formerly regarded as an emerging markets powerhouse, Brazil has been hit by the end of a long commodities boom and lost its coveted investment-grade credit rating in December.

The country's stocks and currency have been among the world's best-performing assets in recent weeks on growing bets that Mrs Rousseff will be removed from office, allowing Mr Temer to adopt more market-friendly policies.

- BBC / Reuters