FOR many Brazilians, the impeachment Tuesday of President Fernando Collor de Mello represents a triumph of democracy over the country's endemic corruption.
Pro-impeachment demonstrators in cities across this nation of 150 million unleashed a wave of patriotic joy as the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil's bicameral legislature, voted to remove the president from power.
Elected in 1989 on an anticorruption and economic modernization program, Mr. Collor was implicated in a huge influence-peddling ring in late August by a congressional committee.
Here in the capital, news of the 441-to-38 vote was greeted by blaring car horns and the sound of nearly 200,000 flag-waving protesters standing in the rain, singing the national anthem.
"This was a democratic revolution," said Luis Ignacio da Silva, the leader of the left-wing Workers Party and Collor's main rival in the 1989 presidential election. "I am very happy because we are initiating a new stage in Brazilian politics: a new stage of morality."
Following a formal notification of the vote, Collor will be sent to trial in the Senate for failing to uphold the dignity of his office; Vice President Itamar Franco will serve as acting president during the 180-day trial period. If Collor is acquitted, he would resume his office; if he is convicted, Mr. Franco will become president and serve until Collor's term ends in 1995.
Collor is accused of receiving at least $9 million through illegal "ghost checks" drawn on accounts in the names of fictitious people but controlled by his former campaign treasurer, Paulo Cesar Farias. The congressional corruption investigation named Mr. Farias as the mastermind of a huge contract-fixing and bribery scheme that used the president's sweeping free-market reforms for personal gain. It also said that the president knew of the scheme but did nothing to stop it.
Criminal charges of corruption, racketeering, and forging of documents are also being prepared by the chief government prosecutor. These crimes carry a minimum sentence of one to two years.
Both Farias and Collor deny any involvement in the scandal. Chance to fight corruption
Marcello Lavenere Machado, president of the Brazilian Bar Association and one of two citizens who signed the formal impeachment request Sept. 7, says the vote result offers the country a chance to widen the fight against corruption. "For the first time in our history we have removed a president according to law and Constitution," he says. "I believe this success will work against other irregularities."
While there are no estimates of how much corruption costs Brazil, business sources say those hoping to win government contracts are frequently required to pay bribes as high as 10 to 20 percent of the project's value. Corruption is also blamed for gutting an education system that leaves as many as 5 million school-aged children without a place in class.
Income-tax evasion is a national pastime and the government is forced to make up the shortfall with heavy taxes on industry and exports. Autos are Brazil's most important industry, but a 76 percent tax helps put new automobiles out of reach of more than 95 percent of Brazilians.
Many speakers at a recent anticorruption rally in Sao Paulo that drew an estimated 500,000 people never mentioned the corruption scandal, speaking instead of their opposition to Collor's congressionally approved "neoliberal" reforms.
Collor has promised to fight on. His supporters accuse his opponents of using impeachment to refight the election they lost in 1989, and to overturn Collor's attempts to lower tariffs, decrease the role of the state, reform the country's corrupt ports, pay off Brazil's estimated $110 billion foreign debt, and sell some 200 state-owned industries. `Coup' is accused
Accusing pro-impeachment forces of staging "a coup" against Collor's free-market reforms, Humberto Souto, government leader in the Chamber of Deputies, said during Tuesday's marathon 10 1/2-hour session: "Monopolists, cartels, unions, and other forces that lost the election are behind this. They are not talking about morality but about the president's program. The demonstrations were not about corruption." Collor supporters say they may press court challenges to the president's suspension from office.
Still, the overwhelming vote for impeachment was made possible only by the defection of many Collor allies, some of whom declared their intention to continue fighting for economic liberalization under a Franco presidency.
Franco himself is a major political uncertainty. While saying he is committed "in principle" to Collor's reforms, Franco made his reputation as a leftist economic nationalist. While he joined Collor's small, right-wing National Reconstruction Party in 1989 and won election with Collor on the same platform, he opposed the first privatization of a state company last fall.
On the other hand, close Franco allies say that a reform of the tax system, a key part of Collor's plan, will be the first order of business for a Franco government. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Franco refused all comment.
Franco will also have to forge a legislative consensus out of an alphabet soup of 18 congressional parties. Few of these parties have any firm policy positions and their members take divergent positions almost as frequently as they vote together.