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Brazilian Senate votes to suspend President Dilma Rousseff from office

A simple majority of lawmakers agreed to open impeachment proceedings against the Workers Party leader

Dilma Rousseff will walk out of the presidential palace of Planalto, stripped of her post by the Brazilian Senate, after a historic session that lasted over 17 straight hours. A simple majority, 55 members out of 81, voted to suspend her from her presidential duties for up to six months while she stands trial. There were 22 votes against, and one abstention.

Senators Eunicio Oliveira, Renan Calheiros, Marta Suplicy and Raimundo Lira talking in the upper house.
Senators Eunicio Oliveira, Renan Calheiros, Marta Suplicy and Raimundo Lira talking in the upper house.Cadu Gomes / EFE

Rousseff is accused of manipulating the national budget to disguise the real state of the deficit and increase public spending ahead of her 2014 re-election campaign. Rousseff claims all presidents have indulged in this practice, and says the move against her is a personal revenge by the former lower house speaker, Eduardo Cunha, who is being investigated for corruption.

The Workers’ Party leader will walk out the front door in a sign that she respects the lawmakers’ decision but disagrees with it. She will then retreat to Alborada Palace, her official residence, where she is allowed to remain in her new condition as ghost president.

With their vote, senators have decided to put Rousseff on a political trial that will last up to six months. During that time, members of the upper house will debate whether the suspended president is guilty of asking public banks for money in order to balance the national accounts. A final vote likely to be held in October will decide whether Rousseff finally goes.

Rousseff herself has described her vice-president Michel Temer as “a traitor and the father of the conspirators”

The president is also hampered by a vast kickbacks scandal affecting Petrobras, the state oil company, which she once headed. She has not personally been accused of corruption, although her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was recently taken in for questioning over a real estate deal.

The impeachment process effectively ends 13 years of rule by the leftist Workers' Party. In the interim, power will automatically be held by her vice-president, Michel Temer, who was a Rousseff ally until a month-and–a-half ago but is now considered her worst enemy. Rousseff herself has described him as “a traitor and the father of the conspirators.”

Supporters of impeachment – mostly center and right-wing parties – discussed the budget manipulation during their speeches, but mostly justified their decision on the disastrous state of the Brazilian economy, which is contracting at an annual rate of 3% of GDP.

Opponents used a simple argument: one cannot oust a president who was chosen by the people with 54 million votes, merely by alleging fiscal maneuvering, which they see as a minor offense or by talking about the economic situation. That’s what the polling stations are for, note Rousseff’s backers.

A marathon session

Still, the plenary session in the Senate did not exhibit the shocking and somewhat ridiculous excesses on display at the lower house, when the latter debated the issue a few weeks ago. On that occasion, deputies indulged in yelling, chanting, confetti throwing and extemporaneous statements such as “I am voting for my aunt, who cared for me as a child.”

And then there was the deputy Emir Bolsonaro, who dedicated his vote to a known torturer from the days of the dictatorship. Rousseff, a guerrilla fighter in her youth, was tortured and held prisoner for three years in the 1970s.

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Meanwhile, street marches were being held in Brasilia and São Paulo both in favor of Rousseff and against her. But attendance was much lower than on the day that Congress voted, signifying that the Brazilian people have, to some degree, accepted the result of the vote. All the opinion polls had been forecasting for days that lawmakers would vote in favor of trying Rousseff.

While the senators took turns on the podium, Vice-President Temer was meeting with members of his next cabinet. With one eye on the economy and the other on the austerity measures that he feels are necessary to straighten out the country, the new president will address the nation at 3pm on Thursday, local time.

By then, Rousseff will already be a president without the presidency. There is one precedent in Brazil, Fernando Collor de Melo, who was impeached in 1992 and resigned one day before the definitive trial. Rousseff has already announced that she will never resign, and that she can only be removed by force from the post she earned legitimately at the polls.

English version by Susana Urra.

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