BRASILIA — WITH Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello resisting calls to resign over an influence-peddling scandal, his opponents have put in motion an impeachment process that may drive him from office by the end of the month.
In an emotional and sometimes unruly ceremony in the National Congress Tuesday, the presidents of the Brazilian bar and press associations formally accused Mr. Collor of degrading his office, lying to the people, and breaking the laws of the republic.
A congressional committee recently found that Collor and his immediate family received at least $9 million from a $330-million influence-trafficking ring run by the president's friend and former campaign treasurer, Paulo Cesar Farias.
"We bring this motion in the name of the Brazilian people," said Marcello Lavenere Machado, president of the Brazilian Bar. Quoting 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke, he told the enthusiastic crowd: "It is for this tribunal to judge those in the government who abuse their power ... in accordance with broad and solid principles of morality."
Following the ceremony, the crowd began chanting: "Collor, get out!" Then, as several congressmen gave a victory salute, the crowd broke into a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
In a nationally televised address Sunday, Collor denied any knowing involvement in the scheme and accused his congressional opponents of using impeachment to frustrate the social reform and economic liberalization program of his 2 1/2-year-old government.
"It's clear that I committed errors," he said. "Who hasn't?... But I have not had any participation, association, tolerance, or responsibility on my part. But we have to ask why they are doing this. The answer is that ... the modernization program of my government is going to succeed."
Ibsen Pinhero, president of the Chamber of Deputies, bitterly attacked the president's accusation as he accepted the petition. "We have passed almost every reform the president has requested. I will not accept criticism of our motives," he said. "This [impeachment] request represents a plurality of the Brazilian people."
Mr. Pinhero now will present the 19-page document to the full Chamber of Deputies, which will vote in the next 20 days, analysts say. If the impeachment request is approved by a two-thirds majority, Collor will have to stand trial in the Senate and step down for 180 days. Vice President Itamar Franco will become acting president.
If convicted in the Senate, Collor will be removed from office permanently and banned from holding public office for eight years. The full impeachment process could drag on well into next year, but the congressional leadership is hoping to speed up the process to prevent the political crisis from paralyzing the government and provoking economic chaos.
In the past, the president, who is widely acknowledged to be a forceful and convincing public speaker, has been able time and time again to use public addresses to rally his supporters and escape from crises that have rocked his administration. This time, however, his speech was considered too little too late.
"Right now, the more Collor tries to explain, the worse it gets," says Alexandre de Barros, a Brasilia-based political analyst. "I expect the Collor government to be over by late October at the latest. Corruption is nothing new in Brazil, but Collor went too far. Ironically many of his reforms worked and angered the traditional supporters who might have otherwise looked the other way."
Many of Collor's closest allies now seem to be coming to the same conclusion. The day after his speech, the executive of the right-wing Liberal Front Party (PFL), agreed to let their members vote on impeachment according to their consciences. The party, which had promised to back Collor to the end, is now deeply split. The PFL has, in theory, enough votes to block impeachment. But according to the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, there are now enough firm votes for impeachment to pass.
The same day the powerful Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo state industrial federations called for a quick resolution of the crisis and asked members to release workers early to attend nationwide anti-corruption protests scheduled for Sept. 11. Last week, similar protests drew hundreds of thousands of protesters in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Organizers expect up to 1 million people to hit the streets in Sao Paulo.
WHEN elected in 1989 on an anti-corruption and reform platform, Collor was the darling of foreign investors and Brazilian free-marketers. Now, however, the Sao Paulo and Rio stock markets rise on rumors of Collor's impending departure and drop sharply following reports that he might stay.
Collor and his remaining supporters are now preparing for a long battle and plan to hold up each stage of the impeachment process with legal and procedural fights. If Collor refuses to resign and tries to win a trial in the Senate, he could hang on well into next year. If he wins, he will serve to the end of his term in 1995.
"To protect the president, it is important that we prolong this process as long as possible," says Deputy Roberto Jefferson, a leader of the dwindling anti-impeachment forces.
Few expect this to succeed. According to Pinhero, there is a consensus among Congressional leaders to move impeachment forward as quickly as possible and block any attempts to hold up proceedings.