Brazil Sets Impeachment Rules With Better Terms for Rousseff

  • Senate now able to halt proceedings before hearings begin
  • 'Her defense in Congress is looking better' -- Gabriel Petrus

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff can move forward, while agreeing on new procedures that could benefit her defense.

In a second and final day of deliberations, the country’s top court ruled the impeachment process that started Dec. 2 on the whole is legal. One of the justices last week ordered legislators to suspend impeachment until the court could decide on a challenge to the proceedings.

While the government allies who issued the challenge failed to stop impeachment cold, they won some arguments that may make it harder for the opposition to oust the president. New steps approved by the court, such as the Senate’s ability to halt the proceedings before hearings begin, could improve her odds of remaining in office, said Gabriel Petrus, a political analyst at business consulting firm Barral M Jorge.

"Plan A of halting the process failed, but Plan B of her defense in Congress is looking better," he said. "She bought herself more time, and the Senate can shut down the process early."

Lower house chief Eduardo Cunha, who accepted the impeachment request on Dec. 2 and is one of Rousseff’s main detractors, said the court has authority to change jurisprudence but questioned its ruling on ending secret votes in Congress. He told reporters in Brasilia he is calling a meeting of house leaders for Monday to discuss the matter.

Committee Dissolved

The court’s ruling giving the Senate more power in the impeachment process has significant implications going forward, Eurasia Group said Thursday.

“That clearly puts Renan Calheiros (PMDB), who has been an ally to Rousseff, in the driver’s seat. The government has a larger and more stable majority in the senate in comparison to the lower house,” Eurasia analysts Christopher Garman and Joao Augusto de Castro Neves said in a research note. Calheiros is the Senate’s president.

The justices also ruled that Congress must dissolve a special impeachment committee that it formed last week. Lawmakers appointed members who tend to oppose Rousseff in a secret ballot. The court decided legislators must hold new elections in a public vote.

The committee will advise the lower house how to vote on the president’s future. Two-thirds of the house must back the process before it can move on to the Senate, which can decide whether to open hearings against the president.

“If a president doesn’t have 171 votes in the lower house, it’s hard to be a government,” said Justice Jose Antonio Dias Toffoli at Thursday’s session of the high court. The lower house comprises 513 members.

If hearings do start, Rousseff would have to step down and temporarily hand over the reins to Vice President Michel Temer. He would remain in power if the Senate impeaches Rousseff.

A final decision on the president’s political future probably won’t come before March, as lawmakers are about to enter the Christmas recess that isn’t scheduled to end until February, Petrus said.

In their request to oust the president, lawyers backed by the opposition accuse Rousseff of breaking fiscal laws by white-washing budget figures and bypassing Congress to authorize spending. Rousseff aides said the practice was common place in previous administrations and doesn’t constitute legal grounds for impeachment.

“Political circumstances don’t affect our duty to defend the constitution,” said Justice Luis Roberto Barroso. “We are here in Supreme Court to make a better country in the long term; we don’t consider common matters; the current political and economic crisis will pass, the government will pass, but we have to defend our institutions.”

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