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Rousseff impeachment: Why some see it as Brazil's only path to change

A shift in thought

Brazil's lower house of Congress voted overwhelmingly for President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment Sunday. Some see it as a necessary first step to confront widespread corruption.

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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff attends a ceremony focusing on education at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, April 12, 2016. Rousseff on Tuesday called her Vice President Michel Temer the “head of the conspiracy” that seeks to remove her from office in her most direct attack on him so far.

Eraldo Peres/AP

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Maria Candida Cardim joined tens of thousands of rowdy protesters on Copacabana beach last night to watch – and cheer – the live congressional vote on President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment.

Carrying a placard that read, “Change Brazil,” Ms. Cardim says she knows “change will not be fast.” The lower house of Congress cast 367 votes in favor of President Rousseff’s impeachment versus 137 against. The loss means her case will now go before the Senate on allegations of manipulating budget accounts – and it could force her from office just months before hosting the Olympic Games.

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“[T]his impeachment will show that no politician can cheat the country so easily again,” says Cardim, a long-time supporter of Rousseff’s Worker’s Party [PT], who became disillusioned over the past decade by repeated allegations of corruption against party coalition politicians.

But with Rousseff’s possible presidential replacements – including Vice President Michel Temer and house speaker Eduardo Cunha – also facing corruption allegations, how the impeachment of the president will lead to a cleaner government has many observers scratching their heads. While many Brazilians are eager to "throw the bums out" and clean up politics at any cost, analysts say, many express uncertainty over exactly what paths are open to them or who can lead the charge.

Pro-impeachment Brazilians like Cardim say they see the contradiction, but are prioritizing a change in leadership and a better economy over a picture-perfect transition.

“Michel Temer is no saint,” she says. “But today he represents a change.”

That sentiment represents the tension among the public on how Brazil can best position itself to move forward. The country has been mired in a corruption scandal that has implicated top tier politicians and business leaders for months. The economy, after years of rising, is in a tailspin. There are few, if any, leaders offering themselves up as alternatives to the current political system, and Brazilians are falling into two camps on what to do: wait out Rousseff’s term, or send a message to other corrupt or would-be-corrupt leaders that citizens have the power to effect change.

Political scientist Bruno de Moura Borges sees a common thread of frustration driving the widespread citizen support for impeachment. Citizens know they have the power to demand something new for their country, but apart from impeachment, there are no obvious ways to get there. 

"There is the abstract feeling of supporting the country but you do not know who you are supporting,” says Mr. Borges, who teaches international relations at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. If “Dilma falls, there is going to be an emotional catharsis.”

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Representing ‘the problem’

Rousseff Monday night addressed the nation on television, adamantly denying she committed an impeachable crime and calling the push a ‘coup.’ She’s accused of making illegal accounting moves, like delaying payments to state lenders, in order to artificially lower Brazil’s budget deficit ahead of the 2014 presidential election. It’s a relatively common political tactic in Brazil, analysts say.

“While I am very saddened by this, I have the force, the spirit, and the courage to fight this process to the end,” Rousseff told the nation. 

Now that Congress has voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment, the Senate will decide in May whether to accept the impeachment motion with a simple majority (41 of 81 senators). If accepted, the Senate will create a committee to investigate the claims and President Rousseff will step aside for 180 days. Within those 180 days the entire Senate will vote on her impeachment, which can be approved with a two-thirds vote. If that happens, Mr. Temer will assume the presidency until 2018. Rousseff can appeal to the Supreme Court at any point in the process.

As each deputy made his or her public vote last night, they had 20 seconds to explain their choice. Every yes vote was greeted by screams of approval in Copacabana, but many of the deputies didn’t even talk about economic well-being or corruption, two of the public’s most pressing concerns, according to recent polls. Instead, they used the time to talk about their family, social norms, and religion, drawing attention to what many see as the politicized nature of the impeachment proceedings, particularly among a crowd of politicians facing their own corruption allegations.

“The televised vote showed the low quality of the representatives and their incapacity to understand what is happening in the moment,” says Creomar de Souza, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Brasilia. “[T]he political establishment is divorced from the people in the streets.”

Isabela Fernandes, an economist demonstrating last night, became fed up with the current government when the economy began to sour two years ago and the corruption allegations came to light. She thinks that Brazil lacks any quality political leadership right now.

“None of them are good,” says Ms. Fernandes, when asked about Rousseff’s possible replacements. “But it’s better to take out who is there right now because they are bad for all Brazilians.

“And if Dilma’s replacement does the same thing, then he can be ousted, too."

She says she has no party allegiance.

"Every party is a corrupt party and you have to choose the least worst,” says Fernandes.

But not everyone agrees it takes a presidential impeachment to start Brazil on its corruption cleanse.

“I am totally against corruption, regardless of which party does it,” says Geiza Silva, a medical technician from Rio de Janeiro’s suburbs, demonstrating in Copacabana last night in favor of keeping Rousseff in office. “We need to renew our political system so that Brazil can continue to advance.” Impeachment, she says, is more a distraction than a solution.

The public is “not acting under a political name or political leadership,” Mr. de Souza says. “They are not looking for a political savior. They are just trying to solve the problem” they face, whether it’s the economy or a sense of negligence by elected officials.

“In this moment, President Dilma Rousseff represents the problem.”