Impeachment trial for Brazil's Dilma Rousseff: What does it really mean?

A decision in the impeachment trial is expected to come before the end of the month. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont adds his voice to protests that the trial is a political coup.

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff rides her bicycle near the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, August 9, 2016. The Senate has voted to move forward with the impeachment process.

Brazil’s senate voted early on Wednesday to indict President Dilma Rousseff on accusations of breaking budget laws, setting up an impeachment trial that would bring to a formal end to Ms. Rousseff’s term in office. 

The verdict is expected to come a week after the Olympic closing ceremony. If Rousseff is indeed impeached, two-thirds of the Senate will need to confirm it in order for the ruling to go into effect – five votes fewer than those who came out against the president on Wednesday.

Rousseff, a member of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), was suspended from the presidency in May, supplanted by conservative vice-president Michel Temer. Mr. Temer has sought to turn Brazil’s politics sharply to the right. In one of his first acts upon reaching office, he overhauled the presidential cabinet, filling it with 22 white men – a first since the military dictatorship of the 1980s and a move widely seen as an affront in a country where more than half of the public identifies as black or dark-skinned, as the Los Angeles Times noted in May.

The gendered descriptions of Rousseff are part of a growing polarization between Brazil’s growing religious right and a developing feminist movement, The Christian Science Monitor reported in May

"Feminism was never so represented in the corridors of universities and in the streets as it is now in Brazil," says Maria Abreu, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told the Monitor. "It’s become an obligatory part of political discussions. And that always comes with a reaction."

The suspended president is accused of borrowing from state banks to pay upfront its expenses, including those going toward social programs. The Brazilian budget watchdog, according to the Financial Times, argues that the practice amounted to receiving loans for the government from the state banks, which is illegal. Rousseff says that several of her predecessors in the presidency did the same, without legal consequences. And she and her supporters charge the opposition with mounting a "coup" against her, in the tradition of the military junta she once worked to subvert as a member of the underground resistance.

"When an elected president is suspended because of a crime she hasn't committed, the name we give is not impeachment but a coup," Rousseff said in May, according to Al-Jazeera.

Others in the international left have voiced similar sentiments. On Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont released a statement expressing concern over an impeachment that "closely resembles a coup d’état" and calling for new elections.

Senator Sanders condemned Temer’s overhaul of the cabinet, as well as his abolition of the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights, calling the interim government’s economic plans a "far right-wing social agenda."

"The effort to remove President Rousseff is not a legal trial but rather a political one," he said. "The United States cannot sit silently while the democratic institutions of one of our most important allies are undermined. We must stand up for the working families of Brazil and demand that this dispute be settled with democratic elections."

On Wednesday, Rousseff’s supporters in the Senate protested that the impeachment was an act of revenge by a conservative elite opposed to the social-welfare gains of the past decade.

"The cards are marked in this game. There is no trial, just a sentence that has already been written," said Workers Party Sen. Jorge Viana in a speech to the chamber, according to Reuters.

Temer has urged senators to move quickly on the impeachment, seeking to press forward with a plan to cap public spending, reform the country's generous pension system and restore investor confidence in ailing government finances.

Rousseff rode to power in 2010 as the former chief of staff of a president beloved by most Brazilians, Lula da Silva. For most of her term, she was quite popular herself, with approval ratings peaking at around 80 percent in 2013. A plunging economy cut deeply at the public’s estimation of her in ensuing years.

But her deepest troubles stem from fallout over a massive corruption scandal in which dozens of lawmakers from several parties – including Mr. da Silva – are alleged to have received kickbacks or overinflated contracts in connection with iconic state oil company Petrobras. Rousseff herself has not been implicated, but Brazilians overwhelmingly say that she knew about the corruption during her time as chairwoman of Petrobras in the previous administration. And the conservative opposition has become more aggressive as her public approval plunged.

After the first procedural vote in May, José Serra, the opposition Social Democratic Party's failed presidential candidate in the 2010 race, framed the impeachment as a matter of the country’s economic future.

"Did anyone think that we would get to 2018 with a recovery under this government? Impossible," he told the Associated Press. "The impeachment is just the start of the reconstruction."

This report contains material from Reuters.

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