RIO DE JANEIRO — With the 2016 Summer Games in Rio just three months away, President Dilma Rousseff lit the Olympic torch here last week and smiled for television cameras. It was probably her last Olympic ceremony as president.
As soon as Wednesday, Brazilian senators are expected to vote to open impeachment proceedings against her. Rousseff would be suspended from office, setting the stage for her permanent removal.
But while Rousseff’s opponents seem to grow giddier with each step toward that outcome, many Brazilians say it will bring them neither pleasure nor relief from the problems the country faces amid its worst economic crisis in 80 years.
Rather than a solution to Brazil’s woes, Rousseff’s impeachment looks more and more like a symptom of them, and maybe the beginning of a long detour into political dysfunction. Her exit, for many, would mark a new low point for a country viewed as an ascendant global power just a few years ago.
“There’s a sense of sadness about this whole process,” said Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“Our democracy is not going to unravel,” he said. “But we are headed for a rough period, and we may be at it for five to ten years.”
Rousseff’s impeachment process has taken on an aura of inevitability in recent weeks. She is increasingly isolated politically. Her alarm-ringing characterization of the campaign against her as a politically motivated, misogynistic “coup” has failed to generate much sympathy outside of her base of left-wing supporters.
But the proceedings against Rousseff also have a credibility problem, with many Brazilians wondering whether her removal is being pursued because she committed a crime or simply because she is unpopular.
If she is impeached, there is no strong, unifying leader coming to Brazil’s rescue. This realization is sinking in. Nearly every major politician in the country is under a cloud of suspicion from the sprawling “Car Wash” probe of bribes and kickbacks at the state oil company Petrobras.
The sense of gloom deepened for some last month when Brazil’s lower house voted overwhelmingly to put Rousseff on trial after a televised, marathon session that took on a circus-like atmosphere, with deputies taunting, shoving and even spitting at each other.
“That was a real show of horrors,” said Lucas Lisboa, 26, an online marketing director in Brasilia who opposes impeachment and said last month’s vote led some of his anti-Rousseff friends to change their minds about wanting her kicked out.
That vote was orchestrated by Rousseff’s archenemy, lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is under investigation himself for allegedly brokering as much as $40 million in bribes. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered him to step down because of the seriousness of the corruption allegations and the risk that he could use his post to interfere with that probe.
He has appealed the decision, but the court’s order further erodes the credibility of his push to sack Rousseff.
She faces impeachment for separate charges: that she spent money without congressional approval and improperly borrowed funds from banks for popular social programs. Senators must decide whether this amounts to what is considered a “crime of responsibility.”
Rousseff insists that she did nothing wrong and that the financial tactics have been a standard practice of Brazilian presidents.
In an interview, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who led Brazil from 1995 to 2003, acknowledged that he, too, moved money around while in office, but said “it’s not the same.”
“These were momentary uses of resources from banks,” said Cardoso, who backs Rousseff’s impeachment. “They were small reserves. It was a matter of cash flow, and quickly corrected.”
With Rousseff, he said, “we are talking about tens of billions of dollars over a long period of time. A continuous manipulation of fiscal data.”
The president’s critics say she used accounting tricks to deceive Brazilian lawmakers and the public about her spending.
“There were very bad choices,” said Sotero, the Wilson Center scholar.
Rousseff’s fate will be determined as soon as Wednesday afternoon. If at least 41 of Brazil’s 81 senators opt to put her on trial, she will be compelled to temporarily step down. Senators would have 180 days to conduct hearings ahead of a final vote, with a two-thirds majority required to unseat her permanently.
Rousseff insists that she will not go down without a fight, but even her supporters concede that a rancorous impeachment trial would be likely to cause irreparable damage to her presidency.
The president’s opponents argue that her removal is the key to putting Brazil back on track. Latin America’s largest economy is headed for a 3.8 percent GDP contraction for the second year in a row, and 3 million Brazilians have lost their jobs since January 2015.
Still, that has not translated to widespread enthusiasm for impeachment, which would give Vice President Michel Temer, Rousseff’s rival, the presidency. According to polls, he is just as disliked as Rousseff.
An electoral court recently ordered Temer to pay a fine for violating campaign-finance laws, a development that could potentially bar him from running for office for eight years. Temer, 75, has said he would finish out Rousseff’s term but would not be a candidate for president in 2018.
In a survey of more than 2,000 Brazilians in 142 cities last month by pollster Ibope, only 25 percent said they wanted to see Rousseff remain in office. But just 8 percent said they supported her impeachment if it meant Temer would take her place.
Ana de Sousa, 56, a retired manicurist living near Rio’s City of God slum, said Rousseff’s impeachment “wouldn’t improve things.”
“I don’t think the people who will take over are going to be any better,” de Sousa said. “They will come in and steal even more.”
A majority of Brazilians say they would prefer new elections, but it seems unlikely that Brazil’s Congress would pass a constitutional amendment authorizing them.
Temer remains at risk of impeachment for alleged corruption. But this past week, Brazil’s top prosecutor did not include Temer in a new list of names he wants the Supreme Court to investigate in the Petrobras scandal — including government ministers and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The prosecutor is also seeking to investigate Rousseff and Lula for possibly obstructing the Petrobras investigation.
Although Temer is not a popular choice to replace Rousseff, he is the only other leader who can claim a democratic mandate, said José Álvaro Moisés, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo. Temer was Rousseff’s running mate in 2014, with the ballot getting 54 million votes.
“He has all the legitimacy he needs to be interim president,” Moisés said.
Temer’s honeymoon would be short. He would need to form a governing coalition, show Brazilians that he can contain the economic crisis, and avoid doing anything that might create the appearance that he is trying to sandbag the Car Wash corruption investigations, Moisés said.
“How he deals with these three challenges will determine whether he is able to gain confidence, trust and public support,” he added.
If Temer failed, Brazil’s political crisis would deepen, and the country would have little to show for an impeachment process that set a bad precedent for Brazilian democracy, said Christopher Sabatini, a senior lecturer at Columbia University and the editor of the online journal Latin America Goes Global.
“It reinforces the notion that a presidential mandate can be changed based on popularity,” Sabatini said. “So it’s not a coup, but it’s a lousy impeachment, and a lousy impeachment has a cost.”