Brazil Court Clears Way For Impeachment Vote

Beseiged Brazilian president's fight to hold his office prompts public talk of `extra-constitutional' solutions

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HAVING lost a last-ditch battle in the country's Supreme Court Wednesday, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello now faces an impeachment vote in Congress as early as next Tuesday.

Mr. Collor, however, has not given up the fight and still hopes to overcome allegations of involvement in a $330 million influence-peddling scandal. But with public opinion overwhelmingly against him, some now fear that a failure to impeach the president will unleash a backlash and unravel Brazil's careful attempts handle the crisis in a democratic and constitutional fashion.

For the first time, some political analysts even talk of a coup to push the president from office.

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"Most agree that this can't go on. Now the most likely outcome is that the military will demand his resignation and install the vice president," says Walder de Goes, a prominent Brasilia-based political-risk analyst.

Until this week, military involvement was almost universally discounted. In the past, the military was often courted to resolve political deadlocks. But since the end of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, all elements of society have resisted any role for the generals.

The armed forces themselves have repeatedly stated their desire to remain aloof from politics. But with pro-impeachment street protests growing - 500,000 rallied in Sao Paulo Sept. 18 - riots and civil unrest are feared if Collor stays. Several major labor unions are calling for a national strike on the day of the vote and the military, despite its reluctance to get involved in politics, still has a constitutional responsibility to maintain public order.

The Supreme Court's decision involved the nature and timing of the impeachment vote. Collor had hoped for a secret ballot, allowing supporters to back him without fear of a public backlash. Many in Congress are running for municipal office in elections scheduled for Oct. 3. The court ended that hope and Collor's attempt to delay the vote.

The main concern over the outcome rests with Collor's attempts to "buy support," Mr. De Goes says. In recent weeks, the president has promised "prestige" to those who support him. Congress, which implicated Collor in corruption in late August, is now investigating a sudden, dramatic rise in money dolled out by a government-owned bank.

While many do not share De Goes's grim prediction, others also talk of "extra-constitutional" resolutions to the crisis if the impeachment vote fails. Under Brazil's 1950 impeachment law, Collor needs to win only a third of the votes in the 503-member Chamber of Deputies.

Ulysses Guimares, one of the longest-serving deputies, has suggested the president, who refuses to resign, is mentally unstable and that Congress might try to have him declared unfit to hold office.

Others say Congress might try to cobble together a series of constitutional amendments creating a parliamentary system. Collor might then stay, but the bulk of his powers would be transferred to a prime minister and a Congress-controlled Cabinet.

"Brazilians are amazingly creative," says Sao Paulo commodities broker Steven Popovics. "If he doesn't go, people will figure out a way to get rid of him. Perhaps they'll force him to take some kind of leave of absence for health reasons. Most people believe there's too much at stake to let him stay."

If Collor loses the vote, the Senate will have the option to try the president for "political crimes." If the Senate does so, Collor will be removed from office for six months and replaced by Vice President Itamar Franco.

The chief government prosecutor also plans to charge the president with corruption, racketeering, and forging documents.

The desire to remove Collor from office at any cost rests with the concern that a continued Collor presidency will kill the country's hard-won deals to restructure $120 billion in government debt with the International Monetary Fund and international commercial banks.

Failure to uphold the agreements, concluded this year, would slow or end the flow of money needed to revive Brazilian industry and pay for government programs.

The business community worries that Collor's free-market reforms are in jeopardy. Collor's apparent attempts to buy votes suggest that the president is willing to ease the discipline his administration has imposed on the country's disorganized finances.

Others, primarily on the left, have never liked Collor's economic policies and see this as a chance to pull back from free-market reforms. Collor's economic plans have come at a high cost: Unemployment is running at 18 percent and inflation is more than 20 percent a month.

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