Livid Dilma Rousseff rails against "coup" and evokes military dictatorship as she is suspended from office

International Olympic Committee downplays effect political turmoil will have on Rio games

David Usborne
Thursday 12 May 2016 17:33
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‘Coup’ is the only word for the impeachment process, says suspended Rousseff

President Dilma Rousseff has bowed to a vote in the Brazilian Senate to suspend her from office and face an impeachment trial for alleged fiddling of national budget numbers while blasting the move as “fraudulent”, “a coup” and a “farce”.

Humiliated by her dramatic downfall, Ms Rousseff addressed the nation hours after the Senate approved her suspension by an overwhelming 55-22 vote. She then swept out of the presidential offices in Brasilia she has occupied since 2011 to make way for Vice President Michel Temer who now becomes the country’s interim leader.

An icy and clearly livid Ms Rousseff, 68, vowed to use “all legal tools” to prove her innocence at a trial that may take as long as six months. “I may have made mistakes but I did not commit any crime,” she insisted. She retains her title of President and will be allowed to remain in the presidential residence, the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Palácio da Alvorada.

Casting a chill through the nation, she evoked the twenty years of brutal military rule that only ended in 1985 and during which she was famously a freedom fighter. “I never imagined that it would be necessary to fight once again against a coup in this country,” she declared.

The events spelled an end, at least for now, of 13 years of government control by the leftist Workers Party, which, under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, ushered in a boom at the end of the last decade that saw millions lifted from poverty. Known as Lula, he was set to be at Ms Rousseff’s side as she addressed a rally of supporters later on Thursday in Brasilia.

Even before the Senate vote, taken in the wee hours close to dawn after 20 hours of speeches, Ms Rousseff had prepared for the inevitable, asking her ministers to resign, including the sports minister who was entering the final lap of preparing the Summer Olympic Games.

The International Olympic Committee sought to downplay the impact the political turmoil might have on the readiness of the host city, Rio de Janeiro. Only days ago, Ms Rousseff had welcomed the Olympic flame to Brasilia. Now she will miss the games entirely.

Preparations “have now entered into a very operational phase and issues such as these have much less influence than at other stages of organising the Olympic Games,“ IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement. ”We have seen the great progress being made in Rio de Janeiro and we remain confident about the success of the Olympic Games in August.”

The lopsided nature of the Senate vote suggests Ms Rousseff will struggle to be acquitted at the coming Senate trial, even though a two-thirds majority will be required to impeach and remove her from office permanently. Ms Rousseff was the first woman president of Brazil.

Fireworks erupted in cities across Brazil at the moment the vote was taken as some in Brazil expressed their glee. But supporters of Ms Rousseff, some of whom had briefly clashed with riot police outside the National Congress as the Senate debated her fate, promised additional days or perhaps weeks of political strife with protests and strikes.

Ostensibly, the trial of Ms Rousseff will focus only on the charge that she used money from state banks to cover up the depth of the national deficit as she prepared for her re-election in 2014 as the boom in Brazil was already turning into bust.

But lurking behind the official charges is the widespread malaise over the economy as well as the continuing aftershocks of a massive corruption and kickback scandal involving the oil giant Petrobras which has ensnared an array of top political figures including many from Ms Rousseff’s own party. On top of all that, Brazil is also enduring the Zika virus crisis.

Mr Temer, 75, barely a popular figure himself, was to take the reins on Thursday and keep the presidency warm pending the outcome of the Senate trial. If Ms Rousseff is found guilty, he would serve out the rest of her second term until the end of 2018 with a first priority of getting the economy in order.

“Did anyone think that we would get to 2018 with a recovery under this government? Impossible,” said Jose Serra, the Social Democratic Party's failed opposition presidential candidate in the 2010 race. “The impeachment is just the start of the reconstruction.

“It is a bitter though necessary medicine,” added Mr Serra, who has been tipped to become foreign minister under Mr Temer. “Having the Rousseff government continue would be a bigger tragedy. Brazil's situation would be unbearable.”

A special investigating committee of the Senate will now be created to investigate the charges against Ms Rouseff. When its work is done, perhaps not until late into the year, she and her team will have 20 days to present her defence.

Due to form his own cabinet later on Thursday, Mr Temer is likely move quickly to introduce economic reforms, including deep cuts in public spending and state pensions. “Only major reforms can keep Brazil from moving from crisis to crisis,” says Eduardo Giannetti da Fonseca, an economist and author in Sao Paulo.

The country is in its worst recession since the 1930s. Economic output shrank by 3.8 per cent last year and unemployment has soared from 6.7 per cent in 2011 to 10.9 per cent now. The national budget deficit has now expanded to 2.8 per cent of the gross national product.

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