BRASILIA — Brazil’s once-lauded model of leftist government appeared to come to an abrupt end Thursday, when lawmakers suspended President Dilma Rousseff in an extraordinary repudiation of her administration and the Workers’ Party that has ruled the country for 13 years.
Vice President Michel Temer quickly assumed control of Latin America’s largest country, signaling that he will take Brazil in a more free-market-friendly direction in an attempt to shore up its sagging economy and win over a skeptical public. A member of the centrist PMDB party, Temer introduced a conservative-leaning, all-male cabinet Thursday that swings Brazil toward the right.
He called on Brazilians to trust in the country’s values and in the recovery of its economy, which is suffering its worst crisis in 80 years. “It is urgent to pacify our nation and unify Brazil,” he said.
Rousseff’s removal sent shock waves throughout Latin America, where Brazil was once viewed as an emerging economic power and the model for a new form of leftist rule, matching support for big business with muscular social-welfare programs to alleviate poverty and nurture a new middle class. That project has come crashing down, and Rousseff paid the price Thursday. She faces impeachment proceedings that could last six months. An overwhelming vote against her in Brazil’s Senate indicated that she had little chance of being acquitted.
Rousseff, 68, is accused of improperly using billions of dollars in loans from government banks to fill budget shortfalls and pay for social programs. But the impeachment vote became a broader referendum on her leadership amid a painful recession and corruption scandals that have swept up much of the country’s political elite.
The country’s first female president vowed to fight the charges against her — raising the possibility of further political instability as Brazil stumbles toward the Aug. 5 opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Rousseff’s supporters called for strikes and demonstrations blocking roadways, but the sympathizers who gathered at the presidential palace Thursday appeared to number only in the hundreds.
A former leftist militant who was jailed and beaten as a young woman during Brazil’s military dictatorship, Rousseff called her suspension “an injustice more painful” than torture, blasting the impeachment vote as “fraudulent” and a “coup.”
Her defiant remarks came after a 20-hour debate that ended with 55 of Brazil’s 81 senators voting to put her on trial, far more than the simple majority needed.
Her accusers say Rousseff systematically obscured the precarious state of the country’s finances from lawmakers and the public to boost her reelection prospects in 2014 and conceal her mismanagement. The impeachment allegations cover only her present term, however.
Just hours after the vote, she insisted again that her predecessors had used the same bookkeeping tactics. “It was not a crime in their time. It’s not a crime in mine,” she said in a brief televised speech.
But her accusers say her accounting methods involved far greater sums.
Temer takes office with a weak government and mandate; recent polls showed that only 2 percent of Brazilians wanted him to be president.
All of the 21 ministers Temer announced Thursday are men, a fact that will fan accusations of gender bias in the push to oust Rousseff, especially from backers of the Workers’ Party, which championed greater diversity in government.
In his first comments after the impeachment vote, Temer said he would focus on reviving the economy and would maintain popular social programs. His new finance minister is a respected former banker, Henrique Meirelles, who was central bank chief under Rousseff’s predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Temer also sought to give assurances that the Olympic Games will go off well, saying that billions of people would be watching and that Brazil could show itself at its best. “We will never get another opportunity like this,” he said.
According to Marcos Troyjo, a former Brazilian diplomat who is a professor of international affairs at Columbia University in New York, Temer’s arrival is likely to bring a shift in trade policy that will make Brazil more attractive for U.S. investors. Temer named Sen. José Serra, who ran against Rousseff in the 2010 presidential election and voted Thursday to remove her, as foreign minister.
“Serra will bring Brazil closer to the West, not only in ideological terms, but practical terms, in terms of market access,” Troyjo said. Rousseff had cordial, although not close, relations with the Obama administration.
Rousseff’s departure was part of a broader political shift in Latin America, Troyjo said, away from the center-left populist model that dominated the region for most of the past decade.
“It puts Brazil in line with a trend being felt around Latin America,” he said.
Temer assumes the presidency on an interim basis, but he would serve out the rest of Rousseff’s term if she were found guilty. In Brazil’s multiparty system, it is not uncommon for a presidential candidate to run with a vice-presidential candidate from a different party.
A career politician, Temer’s reputation is that of a skilled negotiator and smooth behind-the-scenes operator. But he is hardly colorless.
Temer, 75, is a legal scholar and sometime poet who is famous for dapper suits, slicked-back silver hair and young wife Marcela, who will turn 33 on Monday.
Temer is the author of a book of sensual verses inspired by his spouse, a former beauty pageant contestant who became his third wife in 2003.
Temer is one of the many Brazilian politicians who have been implicated in the “Car Wash” bribery scandal at state oil company Petrobras, but he has not been charged. On Thursday, he said would protect the long-running judicial investigation from any possible attempts to weaken it. Rousseff is not under suspicion of graft in relation to that scandal.
Those who know Temer, the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants, say he has the political skills to quickly win over a skeptical public.
“I have never seen someone as prepared for this emotionally as Michel Temer,” said Jacob Goldberg, one of Brazil’s most celebrated psychoanalysts. Goldberg said he has had a close relationship with Temer for decades, calling him “a cordial man, a man of dialogue” and “not a man of confrontation.”
He declined to confirm whether Temer had been his patient, citing confidentiality.
The early-morning vote on Rousseff was the equivalent of impeachment in most democracies. But legal experts say that, in the Brazilian context, a politician is considered “impeached” only if found guilty.
Rousseff’s removal is a once-unthinkable revolt against her Workers’ Party, co-founded by her mentor Lula, who left office in 2010 with an 87 percent approval rating and an economy growing at an annual rate of 7.5 percent. Lula was among the aides who embraced Rousseff in an emotional scene Thursday morning as she left her office for perhaps the last time.
Lula, too, is under investigation on allegations of corruption and obstruction of justice but says he is innocent.
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.