Rousseff Worries Grow as Brazil Court Opens Case on Campaign

  • Legal hearings ultimately could result in ouster of president
  • Government accused of accepting donations that stem from graft

Brazil’s top electoral court agreed to open an investigation into allegations that President Dilma Rousseff illegally financed her re-election campaign. The charges could provide grounds for her removal from office along with Vice President Michel Temer.

Five members of the court, known as TSE, voted on Tuesday to open the investigation, while two judges voted against.

The vote came after the biggest opposition party, known as the PSDB, alleged that Rousseff and Temer used more money than reported and received donations from companies involved in a corruption scandal to fund last year’s re-election campaign. The administration denies the charges and will have a chance to defend itself. The investigation could take months and the administration can make appeals to the Supreme Court.

The electoral court’s decision, while widely anticipated, poses a threat to Rousseff’s political survival as she struggles to contain fallout from a recession and a wave of corruption probes into some of her political allies. If the court rules her campaign used illegal funds, it could call for new elections or even possibly name runner-up Aecio Neves of the PSDB the winner, according to lawyers.

It’s Unprecedented

This is the first time the TSE has opened the type of probe that could result in a president’s ouster.

"It’s unprecedented and completely new in Brazilian politics for a president to undergo something like this, and it comes at a time when the economy is declining," said Andre Cesar, founding partner of Hold Assessoria Legislativa, a Brasilia-based consulting firm. "This complicates things for the government, and will be one of the factors making it weaker."

Gilmar Mendes, a judge in the court who voted in favor of the investigation, said in August there were indications the ruling Workers’ Party was indirectly financed by money from state-owned oil company Petrobras through an alleged scheme of kickbacks.

"It’s essential we get to the bottom of this so something like this doesn’t happen again," he said Tuesday.

Denies Allegations

The Workers’ Party denies allegations it financed the campaign with illegal donations. Rousseff’s lawyer, Flavio Caetano, said after Tuesday’s vote that the TSE’s arguments for investigating the administration are weak and that it previously vetted the campaign donations in a unanimous vote. He said it’s unlikely the probe will wrap up this year.

The TSE’s case isn’t the only threat to Rousseff’s political survival. Lower house President Eduardo Cunha has started reviewing formal requests from politicians and citizens to impeach the president on grounds that range from alleged corruption to charges that she doctored fiscal accounts. Rousseff denies wrongdoing.

Government auditors are expected to vote Wednesday afternoon whether the administration violated the budget law last year. The decision could justify the start of an impeachment process in Congress. Members of Rousseff’s legal team on Tuesday evening asked the Supreme Court to suspend the ruling, saying one of the auditors erred by telling journalists he would vote against the administration.

In a push to shore up support in Congress and fend of the threat of impeachment, the president last week handed allies greater control of her ministries. Her new Cabinet faces votes on Wednesday morning when lawmakers are scheduled to decide whether to uphold presidential vetoes against spending increases.

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