Rousseff Says Impeachment Would Put Brazil’s Democracy at Risk

  • President releases video after national address canceled
  • Congress on Friday started marathon session before Sunday vote

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff said democracy and social programs are at risk as she made a last-ditch call on Brazilians to defend her before a crucial impeachment vote on Sunday.

“What’s at stake is respect for the sovereign will of the people, what’s at stake are social achievements and Brazilians’ rights,” Rousseff said in a seven-minute video posted on the Internet. “I turn to you to ask that you keep defending democracy, that you keep mobilizing in schools, streets and on social networks.”

Rousseff initially intended to address the nation on television and radio on Friday, but instead posted the video overnight after the opposition filed legal motions arguing she can’t make a nationally broadcast speech to defend herself.

The comments are a final push by the country’s first woman president to ward off impeachment in Congress. Rousseff was also expected to attend a pro-government protest on Saturday but canceled her participation in the last minute to personally negotiate support with lawmakers, according to local media. Top Brazilian newspapers O Estado de S. Paulo and O Globo report there are enough votes in the lower house to move the impeachment process forward.

‘Huge’ Vote Ahead

Vice President Michel Temer, who has been preparing to take over the presidency if Rousseff is impeached, dismissed as “lies” the suggestion that he would cut the popular Bolsa Familia family allowance and other social welfare programs. Temer returned to Brasilia to reassure his supporters before Sunday’s vote, his press office said.

Temer was also targeted by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor, and a likely presidential candidate in 2018. “If Mr. Temer wants to become president, don’t try that through a coup,” Lula told anti-impeachment protesters in Brasilia. “Wait for 2018 to be a candidate. Let us debate, let us persuade the people of who can be better for this country.”

Political tensions are nearing a climax as lawmakers on Friday started a marathon session of debate that will culminate in Sunday’s televised impeachment vote. Financial markets surged this week on the prospect of the more business-friendly Temer taking over the top job. Stocks extended a rally that has pushed the benchmark Ibovespa up 23 percent this year.

Sunday’s vote “is huge -- it really is,” said Melvyn Levitsky, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil and a professor of international policy and practice at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. “Brazil hasn’t faced a crisis like this -- not this bad.”

Political Momentum

Rousseff lost some political momentum in recent weeks as her biggest partners abandoned the ruling coalition, depriving her of key votes in Congress. If 342 of 513 lower house lawmakers back impeachment on Sunday, the case moves to the Senate. There, only a simple majority is required to temporarily remove her from office. Two-thirds of the senators are needed to force her out permanently.

The administration faced another setback early Friday when the Supreme Court rejected a government motion to stop this weekend’s session in Congress. In an eight-to-two vote, the justices shot down government arguments that the impeachment motion is flawed and unfounded. The ruling could give efforts to oust Rousseff an added air of legitimacy, after the administration spent months trying to paint impeachment as an attempted coup.

One positive sign emerged for the administration when newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported that the opposition lost two supporters of the impeachment process, meaning it is one vote short to win approval of the motion on Sunday.

Illegal Loans

The impeachment request against Rousseff contends that she broke the law by masking budget deficits with illegal loans from state banks, which contributed to the erosion of public finances. Brazil’s budget gap has more than trebled since 2014 to 11 percent of gross domestic product, the highest on record.

“It’s not just a mere accounting issue,” Miguel Reale Jr., one of the authors of the impeachment request, told Congress on Friday. “The coup was when they hid the fact that the country was broke.”

The debate over Rousseff’s presidency has spilled into the streets, as her supporters and detractors stage demonstrations to pressure members of Congress. Anti-impeachment groups on Friday morning blocked traffic on main roads in Sao Paulo.

Competing Rallies

Both sides of the political spectrum are expected to hold competing rallies in Brazil’s largest cities over the weekend -- particularly on Sunday.

“This Sunday will be the worst Sunday of my life,” Ze Geraldo, the leader of the ruling Workers’ Party in the lower house, said in a speech Friday, where he called impeachment “illegal, immoral and dirty.”

The political drama is playing out ahead of Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, now less than four months away.

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