TODAY'S impeachment vote in the Brazilian Congress is likely to decide more than the future of disgraced President Fernando Collor de Mello.
As Brazil struggles to reform itself after a generation of military dictatorship and a decade of economic mismanagement, the vote and its aftermath will indicate the strength of the country's new democratic institutions.
Despite being elected in 1989 on an anticorruption platform, Mr. Collor was implicated in August in a huge influence-peddling scheme. The economy remains in shambles despite the president's bold and somewhat successful attempts at reform. For the impeachment motion to achieve the two-thirds vote it needs to pass, many politicians will have to toss aside the hopes they had placed on the dashing 43-year-old Collor, the country's first democratically elected president in 30 years.
If they do, as is expected, the result will be a triumph over politics as usual. Deep social, regional, and economic divisions have always made consensus difficult in Brazil. While the vote is unlikely to mend these rifts, it may bring an unprecedented agreement on the rules that will drive Latin America's largest country into the next century.
"For the first time, we have a chance to resolve a political crisis in line with the Constitution and without armed soldiers," Chief Federal Prosecutor Aristides Junqueira said yesterday. "The political and judicial process against the president will mark the breaking of [political] impunity in Brazil."
On the other hand, "if, after all the fuss, Collor stays, it will be very hard to take this country seriously," says Richard Foster, editor of the Brasilia-based newsletter Brazil Watch.
The vote today in the 503-member Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the bicameral legislature, will not be the final word in the case. If the vote passes, the president will remain in office until the Senate formally agrees to try him for failure to uphold his duties, a formality that is expected within days of the Chamber vote.
Collor will then be removed from office for 180 days and replaced by Vice President Itamar Franco, who will serve as acting president until the trial is over. If Collor is convicted or resigns, Mr. Franco will become president and serve until the end of Collor's term in 1995. Collor's ministers have said they will resign immediately after the lower house vote to allow formation of a new government.
The crisis began in May after Collor's brother Pedro denounced the activities of Collor's former campaign treasurer, Paulo Cesar Farias. The ensuing three-month investigation concluded that Mr. Farias used his proximity to the president to mastermind a contract-fixing and influence-peddling scheme that netted participants millions of dollars. Collor and his family were found to have received $9 million illegally.
Almost daily corruption revelations have outraged a large segment of the Brazilian public, who have been hurt by the Collor government's cutbacks and harsh anti-inflation measures. Most recently, Collor was found to have spent $2.5 million building gardens at his private home in Brasilia, complete with waterfalls, a helicopter pad, and ponds with imported Japanese carp.
The crisis seems to have galvanized Brazil in an unprecedented way. Hundreds of thousands have demonstrated in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and other state capitals. While many of the protesters are students and unionists who have never liked Collor, leading industrial groups have overcome reservations and joined the rallies as well. Leaders of parties of both the left and the right have called for a cleansing of Brazil's traditionally corrupt politics.
"I'm going to vote for impeachment," Congressional Deputy Cesar Sousa told the newspaper O Estado. "This is the will of the people, of my electors." As recently as early September, he and his right-wing Liberal Front Party were working hard to shore up Collor's flagging support in exchange for Cabinet posts.
A Gallup Poll published in Brazilian papers Sunday says 74 percent of Brazilians support impeachment and only 5 percent believe that the president - who denies any wrongdoing and refuses to resign - is telling the truth.
Even Brazil's normally secretive Supreme Court bowed to public pressure last week, allowing live TV coverage during deliberations over a failed legal attempt by Collor to stall the vote.
To keep the pressure on, various unions plan strikes for today, and doctors in Brasilia have taken out ads on television saying they will not report for work.
The president, however, is still trying to hang on. His promise of "prestige" to any in Congress who will vote for him, has led to charges of vote-buying. Congress is investigating a sudden rise in loans authorized by a government-owned bank since Collor was implicated last month.
Brazil's chief federal prosecutor is also expected to file criminal proceedings against Collor for corruption, racketeering, and forging documents.
The impeachment vote could send an important signal to Brazil's neighbors. Similar but more- successful economic reforms in Argentina are faltering, in part because of scandals around President Carlos Saul Menem. Venezuela is struggling through an economic crisis with a weak president and restless military officers who are prescribing nationalist and authoritarian remedies.