Brawls, Sermons and Confetti: Brazilian Impeachments Have It All

Brazil’s Uphill Struggle and Rousseff’s Impeachment Vote
  • Lawmakers' emotions ran high ahead of vote to impeach Rousseff
  • Skies lit up with fireworks after news of Sunday vote tally

When Brazilian legislators gather to impeach a president, it’s anything but a solemn affair. Think Carnival of Brazil.

In an impassioned, 10-hour session in Brazil’s lower house of Congress on Sunday to vote on the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the scene on the floor of the legislative chamber sometimes bordered on the surreal. 

A protester in Rio on April 17.
A protester in Rio on April 17.
Photographer: Nadia Sussman/Bloomberg

It had elements of a mob gathering, a rock concert, a bar-room shouting match -- and at times even a church sermon. Legislators alternatively sang, praised God, called for an end to corruption and invoked the futures of their children and grandchildren before getting to the business at hand.

At issue was whether the president had illegally covered up a yawning budget deficit, though not all lawmakers focused on the alleged fiscal maneuvers during their speeches prior to the vote.

Those in favor of impeachment, packed into a tight formation, heckled or cheered after each vote came in. When the decisive vote was cast in favor of impeaching Rousseff, cheering erupted and confetti fell. One opposition lawmaker who had just shouted "yes" into a microphone was moved to tears.

In the streets of some of the nation’s largest cities, Brazilians gathered to watch the vote on live TV. When news of the results broke, the skies lit up with fireworks and residents banged pots and pans on the street in celebration.

Festive Mood

In Congress, the atmosphere was also somewhat festive. After some scuffles at the start of the session, which prompted security personnel to be called to intervene, voting proceeded smoothly, with lawmakers using the few seconds of allotted time at the microphone to loudly proclaim their allegiances. There were minor brawls throughout the night, and one incident of a congressman spitting at another.

Many had state flags draped on their shoulders or wore patriotic ribbons around their necks. Signs saying "There Won’t Be a Coup" competed with others that read "Bye Darling" -- Rousseff frequently uses “darling” when speaking to the media.

A protest in Sao Paulo on April 17.
A protest in Sao Paulo on April 17.
Photographer: Paulo Fridman/Bloomberg

At the center of the stage sat the man overseeing it all -- Lower House chief Eduardo Cunha. The 57 year-old congressman from Rio de Janeiro has been openly vocal against Rousseff, announcing his split from the government months before his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party did the same. 

Act of Revenge

As part of her defense, Rousseff claimed Cunha was pushing forward with her impeachment as an act of revenge after prosecutors looked into his involvement in the corruption scandal at Petroleo Brasileiro SA -- an accusation he denied right before Sunday’s session started.

Cunha himself was the target of much jeering during the vote. Minutes after the start of the session, a large sign saying "Out With Cunha" was displayed behind the desk where he sat. Several deputies said Cunha should also be removed from office. Others declared themselves against the impeachment, so that Cunha would not potentially take power. Brazil’s line of succession places him after Vice President Michel Temer.

Temer, who decided at the last minute to stay in Brasilia for the vote on signs the government was gaining momentum, didn’t make any statements and was nowhere near Congress during voting. Newspaper Folha de S. Paulo published an image of him smiling, allegedly as he watched the voting from home.

Video Screens

Many on the streets also expressed befuddlement that the man overseeing the vote was a politician who himself has been accused of wrongdoing. Impeachment opponents saw the vote unfold on a big screen set up in a plaza in Sao Paulo, where large crowds gathered to watch the World Cup soccer tournament in 2014. Cunha was hung in effigy, with a sign reading "corrupt, coup plotter" around a mannequin’s neck.

Protesters burn a figure in Rousseff’s likeness.
Protesters burn a figure in Rousseff’s likeness.
Photographer: Nadia Sussman/Bloomberg

"It’s surprising that Cunha is leading this after everything he is accused of," said Fernanda Becker, a sociologist wearing red in support of Rousseff. As vendors hawked cold beers from coolers full of ice, the crowd booed the yes votes and cheered the nos.

The mood in Sao Paulo’s Paulista Avenue, where most of the pro-impeachment crowd gathered, was much livelier. Samba and the national anthem played as people gathered watch the vote on large screens.

"I am here because I am against corruption and Dilma is indirectly responsible for the corruption chaos we are experiencing," said Nilcilene Lago, who was at the demonstration with her son. The 43 year-old, who is unemployed after her business shut down in 2013, isn’t too excited about the prospects of a Temer government. "He is less bad than what we have now. The ideal world would be new elections."

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