The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s president is facing impeachment. Here’s a brief guide to what’s next.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff is greeted by residents after a signing ceremony for new housing units at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia on May 6. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Brazil, one of the world’s largest democracies, is mired in a deep political crisis. The country’s economy is tanking, the scary Zika epidemic continues, and the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio is less than three months away.

With Brazil’s leaders enmeshed in power struggles and corruption scandals, the country of 200 million, Latin America’s largest, appears increasingly adrift.
Now comes a major test of where Brazil is headed. On Wednesday, Brazilian senators will likely vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, suspending her from office.

With new corruption allegations and indictments surfacing every week, it can be tough to keep track of what’s happening and what’s next.

Here’s a quick guide through Brazil’s political wreckage, in the form of questions and answers about what’s going on.

So Brazil is likely to impeach President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday?

Senators will vote on a measure already approved by the lower house to put Rousseff on trial, and it doesn't look good for Brazil's president. If a simple majority of 81 senators agree, Rousseff will be suspended and Vice President Michel Temer will be sworn in.

Then what?

The Senate would be turned into a kind of special tribunal to hear arguments and consider evidence for and against Rousseff. Lawmakers would have 180 days to conduct the hearings ahead of a final vote, and a two-thirds majority would be needed to permanently remove the president. Temer would serve out the rest of her term through 2018.

Rousseff says she’ll fight the whole way, but the proceedings are likely to be a bruising ordeal. The Olympics start Aug. 5, so it’s possible Brazilian TV viewers will be flipping channels between track events, swimming races and Rousseff’s impeachment battle.

There’s been some speculation that lawmakers would try to fast-track her impeachment for this very reason, to avoid the damage to Brazil’s international image while global attention is on the Games. But Rousseff, her attorneys and her supporters in the Senate are unlikely to oblige.

So Rousseff is accused of corruption?

Not exactly. Rousseff is accused of using billions' worth of unauthorized loans from government banks, in part to fund social welfare programs that benefit the poor Brazilians who are a key constituency of her leftist Workers’ Party. While this bookkeeping tactic is not especially new among Brazilian presidents, Central Bank figures suggest that it increased significantly over the past several years as the country’s economy deteriorated.

Rousseff denies wrongdoing, but it will be up to senators to decide whether her actions constitute an impeachable offense, or what Brazilian law considers a “crime of responsibility.”

Brazil’s top prosecutor also asked the Supreme Court to investigate Rousseff for allegedly interfering with the massive “Car Wash” corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras. Rousseff is not one of the dozens of lawmakers under indictment or suspicion of stealing money from Petrobras, but she was the chair of its board of directors when many of her political allies were skimming and taking bribes.

What happens if Rousseff beats the charges?

Rousseff would resume her presidential term, but political analysts say she would be so weakened by the impeachment process that it’s nearly impossible to imagine her being able to recover. Brazil’s system has dozens of political parties, and nothing can get done without coalition-building and deal-cutting. Her enemies are many, and her public-approval rating hovers around 10 percent, according to recent polls.

Can’t they just call new elections?

Surveys indicate that’s what most Brazilians would prefer. But such a scenario is not contemplated by Brazilian law. So lawmakers would have to pass a constitutional amendment, and they don’t seem to be in any mood to help Rousseff save face with a graceful exit.

Who takes over if Rousseff’s out?

Vice President Michel Temer, Rousseff’s former running mate-turned-rival. Temer, 75, has a reputation as a skilled negotiator and dealmaker, but he’s viewed just as negatively by the public as Rousseff. He’s also battled corruption allegations, and he was president of the centrist PMDB party, Brazil’s largest, when prosecutors say it was deeply involved in the graft scheme at Petrobras.

What about former president Lula? Is he still Brazil’s most popular politician? 

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who led Brazil during its economic boom and left office with an 87 percent approval rating in 2010, has fallen, and hard. He’s very much at the center of the storm. He’s still a beloved figure to many Brazilians, especially the poor, but he’s potentially facing a range of charges for corruption and obstruction of justice. He would be eligible to run for president again in 2018 — if he’s not in jail — and has all but said he plans to do so. He's also said he is innocent of the allegations.

How will all of this affect the Summer Olympics in Rio?

It’s a big unknown. Organizers of the Games say Brazil will be ready, put on its best face and set its conflicts aside. But the economic crisis and the political tensions have left Brazilians angry and divided. They may be in no mood to have a party. Then again, it’s Brazil, and the country’s famous Carnival tradition is all about forgetting your problems and having a little fun.