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Disgraced Collor throws in towel

FERNANDO Collor de Mello resigned as President of Brazil yesterday as his impeachment began in the Senate. The alternative would have been to face a certain guilty verdict and debarment from public office for eight years.

Vice-President Itamar Franco, who has been acting president since Mr Collor was suspended in September, was immediately sworn in as President. He will serve out the remaining two years of the presidential term.

Mr Collor, 43, finally fell victim to a long-running corruption scandal that began with allegations of influence-peddling against his former campaign manager, Paulo Cesar Farias, and spread to envelop the President himself and many of his immediate circle. Right up to the last minute he swore that he would never resign, and accused his tormentors of mounting a political conspiracy against him. He used every delaying tactics imaginable and changed his lawyers only last week, on the apparent but totally unreal assumption that he still had a chance of being acquitted.

Although Mr Collor has avoided the automatic exclusion from public office that would have gone with impeachment, he now loses his executive immunity and could face criminal charges of corruption and criminal association which carry an eight-year prison sentence. The former president was rumoured yesterday to be on his way to Paris, where he has an apartment. Mr Farias, his erstwhile financier, is already safely installed in Madrid, undergoing medical treatment for his chronic snoring problem.

Mr Collor, former governor of the backward north-eastern state of Alagoas, won a sweeping electoral victory in 1989, despite his lack of a party organisation, and quickly made a name for himself with a tough economic austerity programme designed to halt hyperinflation and cut back the ponderous, inefficient public sector.

He was a glamorous figure - young, handsome, dashing and given to well-publicised stunts at the controls of a jet plane or racing car. He also went in for such crowd-pleasing gestures as the appointment of a noted conservationist, Jose Lutzemberger, as environment minister, and he won applause from campaigners for his defence of Amazon Indian tribes.

But the shine began to wear off as the corruption allegations piled up, his most prominent allies deserted him and the millions who had acclaimed him only a few months earlier soon took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and other great cities to demand his impeachment.

The future is now fraught with uncertainty for Brazil, which has a population of 155 million and the world's tenth-biggest economy. Mr Franco, 62, is a very different proposition to his predecessor. He is an old-style politician, a long- serving senator from Minas Gerais state who is suspicious of the market-led modernisation favoured by Mr Collor and his team of technocrats. His nationalistic and interventionist tendencies have already cost him one finance minister, who resigned just before Christmas in protest at Mr Franco's insistence on setting prices of basic goods.

Inflation, which has been hovering round the 25 per cent a month mark, shows no sign of coming down, and critics fear a return to the succession of economic crises and emergency 'packages' of the recent past, which Mr Collor had promised to banish for good. Mr Franco's admirers point out that at least he is scrupulously honest and reassuringly grey. 'He makes John Major look exciting,' one of them remarked yesterday.

For the moment many Brazilians feel, paradoxically, that the democratic system has been vindicated by the fall of the elected president. 'The nightmare is over,' said Senator Amir Lando, who led the congressional investigation into Mr Collor's conduct. 'The country can sleep peacefully.' Institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court, not to mention public opinion, have been shown as effective brakes on executive power, and capable of steering the country through a protracted political crisis without any breakdown in law and order.

Perhaps most important of all, the traditionally coup-prone armed forces, which ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985, have firmly resisted the temptation to get involved this time.

(Photograph omitted)