BRASILIA — An impeachment showdown in Brazil’s lower house of Congress stretched into Sunday evening, with what appeared to be a critical mass of votes building against President Dilma Rousseff.
Rousseff’s opponents said they were confident they had the two-thirds majority needed to impeach her, and appeared to be celebratory mood even before the final tally was complete.
“To rescue the hope that was stolen for the Brazilian people, I vote yes,” said Shéridan de Anchieta, one of the many anti-Rousseff lawmakers whose votes brought wild cheering to the chambers. Another legislator fired confetti into the air from a toy pistol at one point after casting his vote to sack the president.
The attempt to oust her has badly divided Brazilian society and produced a deep political crisis, a stunning reversal of fortune for a country where everything seemed to be going right a few years earlier when the Brazilian economy was purring. Sunday’s dramatic vote has left Brazilian society more divided than any point in recent memory.
Brazilian lawmakers shouted over each other throughout the afternoon and scuffled on the floor of parliament in a rowdy session that unfolded with a circus-like atmosphere on live television. Members of the 513-seat Chamber of Deputies cast their votes one by one, ratcheting up the drama as the evening wore on.
Brazil is mired in its worst economic slump since the 1930s. A frightening Zika epidemic continues to spread. And with the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro fewer than four months away, the country’s leaders are consumed with the political crisis and a sweeping corruption scandal.
Rousseff isn’t accused of stealing, but opponents say she should be impeached because her administration allegedly tried to cover up budget gaps with funds from government banks. She denies any wrongdoing.
The specifics of those charges were not the substance of Sunday’s proceedings, and the sight of so many lawmakers lined up against the president only seemed to reinforce the depths of her unpopularity. Rousseff’s approval rating was just 13 percent in the most recent poll.
But many Brazilians unhappy with her are also wary of the lawmakers leading the impeachment push, many of whom are under investigation themselves for corruption, bribery and other misdeeds.
Said Communist Party deputy Marcivania Flexa, prior to casting her vote against impeachment: “I have never seen so much hypocrisy.”
Demonstrators on both sides of Brazil’s divide held rallies and street protests throughout the day, with Rousseff’s backers denouncing the impeachment drive as a thinly disguised coup.
If the impeachment measure passes the lower house, it would require only a simple majority to clear Brazil’s Senate, where Rousseff’s chances for survival are even slimmer. Rousseff would be suspended from the presidency, Vice President Michel Temer would be sworn in, and senators would have 180 days to conduct formal impeachment hearings before a final vote to determine her fate.
More quietly, both sides have been furiously lobbying the few dozen lawmakers who have yet to say how they will vote Sunday, lining up support by dangling high-level cabinet jobs and other perks. It’s precisely this sort of backroom deal-making that has left so many Brazilians angry at their leaders, and a throw-the-bums-out national mood does not bode well for Rousseff’s chances.
“We are very certain of victory,” said Antônio Imbassahy, leader of the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party. Lawmakers, he said, were “in sync with the feelings of the Brazilian people.”
During the past two days, the president’s supporters and opponents in Congress have taken turns speaking — and shouting — during televised proceedings that frequently erupted in rowdy scenes. Rousseff’s supporters waved signs reading, “There Will Be No Coup,” while their partisans spoke, as the other side hoisted placards demanding an “Impeachment Now.”
According to police estimates, the crowd of 18,000 impeachment supporters at a rally outside congress Sunday was more than twice as large as the anti-impeachment group that marched through Brasilia in Rousseff’s defense.
Those demonstrators have camped out near a soccer stadium here in the capital, many from activist groups, unions and left-wing movements that belong to Rousseff’s coalition.
Maria da Silva, 47, traveled from Maceio, in northeastern Brazil, where she works for the bus drivers’ trade union. She said the lives of tens of millions of poorer Brazilians like her improved immeasurably under Workers’ Party governments.
“There is more opportunity for the poor,” she said, adding that she had been able to buy her house through a government financing scheme that built low-cost housing. “To take out [Rousseff] and put the others in will be horrible,” she said. “This is a coup.”
It’s an emotionally charged term for many in this country, which was under military rule from 1964 to 1985. But those working to remove Rousseff before the end of her second term, in 2018, say this movement is different and entirely democratic.
A thousand or so pro-impeachment demonstrators are camped here in a city park, many wearing the yellow-and-green jerseys of Brazil’s national soccer team. On the whole, they are more middle class and lighter-skinned, reflecting some of the racial and economic undercurrents in the impeachment battle.
Tiago Medina, 28, was in a group that had traveled from Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s more-prosperous south, a bastion of anti-Rousseff sentiment. He said the pro-impeachment side is made up of people “who defend the values of freedom, with less state intervention in the economy.”
Medina said their movement is part of the rightward shift across Latin America after more than a decade of dominance by leftist leaders. “We’re standing up for liberal values,” he said.