Brazil's Rousseff gains time to prevent impeachment

Brazilian government postpones start of impeachment against Rousseff

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

President Dilma Roussef, of Brazil

A Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday won President Dilma Rousseff more time to muster votes in Congress to block opposition efforts to impeach her on charges of manipulating government accounts.

Opposition parties had planned to force a vote in the lower house that could have opened proceedings to impeach the president as early as this week.

But a Supreme Court justice suspended the maneuver with an injunction sought by lawmakers of the ruling Worker's Party.

Brazil's worst recession in 25 years and a huge corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras have pushed Rousseff's approval ratings into single digits and put her political survival at risk. Nine months into her second term, polls show two-thirds of Brazilians want to see her impeached.

The Supreme Court's decision gives her some extra time to line up her supporters in Congress, although the speaker of the lower house Eduardo Cunha insisted on Tuesday he would continue to review impeachment requests despite the injunction.

"The decision on impeachment requests is a constitutional prerogative I have and it is not being questioned. I continue to have this prerogative and I will use it," said Cunha, a former ally of Rousseff's who recently defected to the opposition.

Cunha said he has three impeachment requests to decide on. They include one by lawyer Helio Bicudo that is seen as the most serious challenge to Rousseff because it alleges she doctored government accounts to allow for more spending in the run-up to her re-election a year ago, a charge based on a federal audit court finding announced last week.

The main opposition party said it would file a new request on Friday that will include Bicudo's petition and add charges that Rousseff continued to misuse government accounts this year.

For now, Rousseff appears to have enough votes to block impeachment, but that could change as Brazil's political crisis deepens.

The president's aides fear Cunha could try to speed up the impeachment process because he is under pressure to resign as speaker following the discovery of Swiss bank accounts in connection with corruption charges against him.

If Cunha accepts one of the petitions, a parliamentary commission with representatives of all parties would analyze it and put it to a lower house vote. It would need two-thirds support to open an impeachment trial in the Senate.

Cunha might not see that day. Two leftist parties asked the house ethics committee on Tuesday to remove the speaker for lying about the Swiss accounts last year to a parliamentary inquiry into the Petrobras scandal. Conservative parties called for Cunha's resignation on Friday.

Rousseff has scrambled to contain Cunha. Two weeks ago, she reshuffled her cabinet to give members of his party more posts and prevent them from joining efforts to impeach her, yet she has still failed to win Congress' support for a fiscal austerity plan.

Her spokesman Edinho Silva called on Congress, not to paralyze the nation with a presidential impeachment at a time when it needs to restore economic growth. Silva said the opposition lacked a legal basis to impeach Rousseff.

"Not all lawmakers are confident there is a clear legal basis for impeaching her," said analyst Gabriel Petrus at Brasilia-based consultancy Barral M Jorge Associates. "This Supreme Court decision could sway those who have not yet decided to back impeachment."