Efforts to impeach Brazil president plunge into chaos

RIO DE JANEIRO - The fight over President Dilma Rousseff's future has taken a strange twist in Congress, with the leader of the lower house saying senators can't go ahead with an impeachment vote and the Senate leader insisting they will.

The latest chapter in Brazil's political drama began on Monday when the acting speaker of the Chamber of Deputies announced that he had annulled a majority vote by his own colleagues last month that favoured ousting Rousseff and sent the matter to the Senate for a possible trial of the president.

The surprise move by acting Speaker Waldir Maranhao touched off a stormy debate over the decision's legality and its possible implications, a standoff that will likely have to be solved by the country's supreme court.

The Senate had been expected to vote on Wednesday whether to accept the impeachment case against Rousseff and put her on trial for allegedly breaking fiscal rules in her management of the national budget. If a simple majority of senators decides in favor, Rousseff will be suspended and Vice President Michel Temer will take over until a trial is conducted.

Senate President Renan Calheiros told colleagues that he intended to ignore Maranhao's action and move forward with the proceedings as scheduled. He criticised the speaker's action as "toying with democracy."

Whether the Senate would be able to go forward was unclear, since both the government and opposition were likely to appeal Maranhao's decision. At the very least, the impeachment process could be pushed back a few days.

The impeachment proceedings come as Brazil is grappling with its worst recession in decades, a continuing corruption probe that already has ensnared top politicians and prominent businessmen, and an outbreak of the Zika virus. At the same time, the country's showcase city, Rio de Janeiro, is gearing up to host the Olympics in August.

Rousseff's once-overwhelming public support has eroded with the onslaught of bad news, with her approval ratings dipping into the single digits in recent months. While polls have suggested broad public support for her impeachment, they have also pointed to widespread worry about who might replace her.

Under the terms of Maranhao's decision, the Chamber of Deputies would have five sessions to hold another vote on whether to send the impeachment process against Rousseff to the Senate.

The lower house overwhelmingly voted to move forward with the process last month and it is those April 15-17 sessions that were annulled by Maranhao, who opposed impeachment.

Speaking late on Monday, Maranhao said the vote was riddled with irregularities, and included a violation of rules, such as party leaders telling members how to vote.

"We are not, nor will we ever be, joking around with how we make democracy," he said.

Rousseff is battling impeachment over allegations that her government violated fiscal rules, in what critics say was a bid to artificially bolster the country's flagging economy. Rousseff has said that prior presidents used such fiscal manoeuvres and that the impeachment effort amounts to a "coup" aimed at removing her and her left-leaning Workers' Party, which has governed the country for 13 years.

Rousseff reacted cautiously to Maranhao's announcement, suggesting it wasn't entirely clear what was happening.

"We have a difficult fight ahead of us," she said at an event about education. She also called for caution, saying that "we live in a time of cunning and wile."

Maranhao took over the reins in the Chamber of Deputies after former Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who was the driving force behind the impeachment effort, was suspended over corruption and obstruction of justice allegations against him.

In a statement, Cunha said Maranhao's action were "absurd, irresponsible and against the rules." He also lashed out at news reports suggesting that he might have helped orchestrate the decision behind the scenes in a bid to reassert control over the impeachment process.

Opposition congressman Pauderney Avelino held the view of many government detractors, saying the impeachment process was out of the lower house's control. "The process in the Chamber is done with," Avelino said.

The head of the Brazilian Order of Attorneys, Claudio Lamachia, said the organisation "regards the decision with extreme worry."

"This sort of action responds to the momentary interests of certain political groups but ignores legitimate decisions that have already been made," Lamachia said in a statement.

The Eurasia Group, a US-based political and economic risk consultancy, said in a statement: "The decision certainly took most observers by surprise, but we think it very unlikely to hold."

"But one way or another, the Supreme Court will most likely have to weigh in," it said.


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