BRASILIA — President Dilma Rousseff lost a crucial impeachment vote in Brazil’s lower house on Sunday evening, making her removal ever more likely and deepening the country’s political crisis less than four months before the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Rousseff’s opponents easily obtained the two-thirds majority of votes in the 513-member Chamber of Deputies needed to pass the impeachment measure. Voting one by one in a rollicking marathon session broadcast live on television to a rapt Brazilian public, the pro-impeachment lawmakers celebrated wildly on the floor of parliament as they vaulted past the minimum threshold needed to repudiate her.
“To rescue the hope that was stolen from the Brazilian people, I vote yes,” said Shéridan de Anchieta, one of the many anti-Rousseff lawmakers whose statements brought rowdy applause and jeers to the chamber. One lawmaker fired confetti into the air from a toy pistol after voting to sack the president.
The cascade of votes to boot Rousseff from office less than two years after her reelection was a powerful display of her abject political collapse and the extremes of her unpopularity. Rousseff, 68, is the hand-picked successor of iconic former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and their leftist Workers’ Party once seemed unassailable as it led Brazil through a period of prosperity that lifted tens of millions out of poverty.
She and her supporters repeatedly denounced the impeachment attempt as “a coup” tantamount to an interruption of Brazilian democracy, which was restored in 1985 after 21 years of military rule.
Yet with Rousseff’s approval rating hovering around 10 percent, Sunday’s vote turned into a visceral repudiation of the 13 years that she and Lula have been in power. It was a stunning reversal of fortune in a country where everything seemed to be going right just a few years ago, when a global commodity boom had the Brazilian economy purring.
Now Brazil is mired in its worst economic slump since the 1930s. A frightening Zika epidemic continues to spread. With the country’s leaders consumed by political combat and a broad corruption scandal, Brazil today is a far angrier and more divided country than the one picked in 2009 to host this summer’s Olympics.
The impeachment measure will now move to Brazil’s Senate, where only a simple majority is needed to force Rousseff to step down. Senators would have 180 days to conduct formal impeachment hearings before a final vote to determine her fate while Vice President Michel Temer — Rousseff’s former running mate and now rival — assumes temporary control.
“It was a battle,” said Miguel Hadad, an opposition leader who voted for Rousseff’s removal. “So it is a moment of satisfaction for us, and also for the millions who went to the streets to demand impeachment.”
Lindberg Farias, a Rousseff ally in the senate, said that the politicians who could end up in power would frighten Brazilians, and that the president could prevail in the upper house, where a vote has yet to be scheduled.
Rousseff isn’t accused of stealing, but her opponents said she should be impeached because her administration allegedly tried to cover up budget gaps with money from government banks. She has denied any wrongdoing.
The specifics of those charges were barely referred to during Sunday’s proceedings. Lawmakers voting for impeachment concentrated on attacking corruption and Rousseff’s economic record in 10-second speeches that were screamed as often as they were spoken.
“Lula and Dilma in jail! I vote yes for impeachment!” shouted Soraya Santos, a deputy from the state of Rio de Janeiro.
But many Brazilians unhappy with Rousseff also are wary of the lawmakers leading the impeachment push, more than half of whom are under investigation themselves on suspicion of corruption, bribery and other misdeeds, including Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house, who orchestrated the vote.
Said Communist Party deputy Marcivania Flexa, before voting against impeachment: “I have never seen so much hypocrisy.”
Brian Winter, a Brazil expert and the vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, said that Rousseff’s impeachment was a process from which few winners would emerge.
“I worry history may take a dim view of both President Rousseff and this impeachment,” he said.
“Brazil’s economy is in its worst recession in at least 80 years in large part because of mistakes Rousseff made. But it’s hard to see how this impeachment — under dubious circumstances, by a Congress just as unpopular as she is — will lead to solutions in the near term,” Winter said.
“In coming weeks, I think you’ll see Rousseff pull out every legal and political means at her disposal to stay in office,” he added. “It’s going to be a messy transitional period of weeks or months, full of protests and polarization. Brazil’s economy needs strong leadership to pass a new wave of reforms, pull out of this mess and get back on the path it was on last decade when it dazzled the world.”
Demonstrators on both sides of Brazil’s political divide held rallies and street protests here and nationwide Sunday. Many followed the voting in Congress on big screens as if watching a soccer match.
According to police estimates, the crowd of more than 50,000 impeachment supporters at a rally Sunday outside Congress was twice as large as the anti-impeachment group that marched through Brasilia in Rousseff’s defense.
Those demonstrators have camped out near a soccer stadium here in the capital, many of them from activist groups, unions and left-wing movements that belong to Rousseff’s coalition. Maria da Silva, 47, traveled from Maceio, in northeastern Brazil, where she works for the bus drivers trade union. She said the lives of tens of millions of poorer Brazilians like her improved immeasurably under Workers’ Party governments.
“There is more opportunity for the poor,” she said, adding that she had been able to buy her house through a government financing scheme that built low-cost housing. “To take out [Rousseff] and put the others in will be horrible,” she said. “This is a coup.”
But those working to remove Rousseff before the end of her second term, in 2018, say this movement is different and entirely democratic.
Pro-impeachment demonstrators are camped here in a city park, many wearing the yellow-and-green jerseys of Brazil’s national soccer team. On the whole, they are more middle class and lighter-skinned, reflecting some of the racial and economic undercurrents in the impeachment battle.
Tiago Medina, 28, was in a group that had traveled from Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s more prosperous south, a bastion of anti-Rousseff sentiment. He said the pro-
impeachment side is made up of people “who defend the values of freedom, with less state intervention in the economy.”
Medina said their movement is part of the rightward shift across Latin America after more than a decade of dominance by leftist leaders. “We’re standing up for liberal values,” he said.