(WSJ) BRASÍLIA— Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who defied a dictatorship but struggled as Brazil’s president amid a troubled economy and a fractious political climate, was removed from office Wednesday following an impeachment trial she condemned as a coup d’état.
Far from ending Brazil’s monthslong political crisis, Ms. Rousseff’s ouster leaves the country’s new leaders beset with an economy in tatters and an angry, divided electorate.
Brazil’s Senate voted 61-20 to convict Ms. Rousseff on charges that she used illegal bookkeeping maneuvers to hide a growing budget deficit, deemed an impeachable crime in a nation with a history of hyperinflation and fiscal mismanagement. Two-thirds of Brazil’s 81 senators, or 54 votes, were needed to remove Ms. Rousseff from power.
The outcome was widely expected, though only partly because of the legal evidence marshaled against her. Well before the trial’s final phase opened last week, Ms. Rousseff’s administration had been upended by a brutal recession and a massive corruption scandal at the state oil company that splintered her political base and devastated her popular support. Her departure marks a humiliating end for Brazil’s first female president, and closes 13 years of rule by her leftist Workers’ Party.
Interim President Michel Temer, who served as vice president and was among the many former allies to abandon Ms. Rousseff, will finish out her second term, which runs through the end of 2018.
Even before Wednesday’s vote, Ms. Rousseff’s political enemies hailed her looming removal as a rebuke to the leftist tide that swept across many South American countries in the early 2000s.
Sen. Ronaldo Caiado of the right-wing Democrats party said Ms. Rousseff’s ouster was a repudiation the Workers’ Party and Ms. Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former metal worker who became president in 2003 and set about expanding social programs to aid Brazil’s poorest citizens.
Without “this populist, Bolivarian and corrupt group,” Mr. Caiado said, “society will be able to breathe easily, even knowing the economic difficulties, the level of unemployment.”
But others say Mr. Temer’s ascension won’t placate a restless public fed up with the political status quo and disgusted by widespread corruption across all major parties. His Brazilian Democratic Movement Party is among those tainted by the graft scandal at Petróleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras, as the state oil company is known. Mr. Temer was loudly booed at the opening ceremonies of the recent Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
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“The ‘throw the bums out’ feeling about politics—that will not be satiated by Dilma’s removal,” said Matthew Taylor, a professor at American University in Washington and an authority on Brazilian politics. “The kind of smoky-room feeling about the way impeachment has proceeded gives a very sort of unsavory taste to the whole impeachment process.”
Indeed, many Brazilians believe Ms. Rousseff’s fall had less to do with official impeachment charges than her mishandling of South America’s largest economy, which moved from 7.6% GDP growth in 2010, when she was first elected, to the worst downturn since the Great Depression during her second term.
Easy credit, energy subsidies and other stimulus measures that Ms. Rousseff’s administration pushed through to weather a global recession helped fan double-digit inflation, and ultimately worsened Brazil’s slide when they were withdrawn. The nation’s economy contracted by 3.8% last year and is expected to shrink another 3.2% this year.
“Impeachment isn’t only about a crime,” said Sen. Cristovam Buarque of the Popular Socialist Party. “There is also a government without support in Congress and without a path for the economy.”
Ms. Rousseff also was damaged by the Petrobras scandal, a yearslong bid-rigging-and-bribery ring in which politicians and contractors colluded to loot billions from the oil giant. Petrobras wrote off nearly $30 billion in 2014 and 2015, much of that due to bribes and inflated contracts, while a sprawling investigation has toppled dozens of powerful business executives and politicians. At least 50 members of Brazil’s Congress have been implicated in the so-called Operation Car Wash probe.
Among them is Ms. Rousseff’s most implacable foe, former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who has been charged with pocketing millions in bribes linked to Petrobras contracts. Mr. Cunha was the legislative gatekeeper who allowed impeachment proceedings against Ms. Rousseff to move forward in December, the same day her Workers’ Party allies declined to support him in a House ethics inquiry. Mr. Cunha has denied wrongdoing.
A supporter of Ms. Rousseff cries during a demonstration in front of the presidential residency in Brasilia on Wednesday. ENLARGE
A supporter of Ms. Rousseff cries during a demonstration in front of the presidential residency in Brasilia on Wednesday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Testifying before the Senate on Monday in her own defense, Ms. Rousseff said the impeachment process was sheer political payback. She said Mr. Cunha and her other adversaries were angry that she didn’t use her influence to stop the blockbuster investigation that has blown up Brazilian politics.
Although Ms. Rousseff headed Petrobras’s board of directors when much of the illegal activity occurred, the probe has produced no evidence that she personally benefited from the scheme, in contrast to many lawmakers who supported her ouster.
“I paid a high price,” Ms. Rousseff said during her dramatic appearance Monday before the Senate. “Everyone knows that I didn’t enrich myself through public office, that I didn’t steal public money for my own account.”
Ms. Rousseff is the second Brazilian president to be impeached since 1992, and the fifth of eight presidents elected since 1950 who didn’t finish their terms. Two died during their mandates, one resigned before his impeachment trial concluded, and one was overthrown in a coup at the start of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
Wednesday’s vote likely spells the end of the unusual political career of Ms. Rousseff, 68 years old. In the early 1970s, she was interrogated and tortured as a member of an urban rebel faction during the military dictatorship. Handpicked by her popular predecessor, Mr. da Silva, Ms. Rousseff was a party loyalist and technocrat who never held elected office before winning her first presidential term in 2010.
Ms. Rousseff’s personal style, which even some allies have described as imperious and inflexible, also cost her support. She lacked the popular touch, seasoned instincts and deep connections of the extroverted Mr. da Silva, liabilities that made it easier for former allies to abandon her when the political winds shifted.
Ms. Rousseff’s unwavering loyalty to Mr. da Silva has been costly. In August, a Supreme Court justice authorized an investigation of Ms. Rousseff for allegedly obstructing justice when she tried to appoint Mr. da Silva as her chief of staff earlier this year. As a cabinet member, Mr. da Silva would have been shielded from criminal prosecution stemming from allegations of his involvement in the Petrobras scandal, which he has denied. Both he and Ms. Rousseff conceivably could face jail terms.
Ms. Rousseff remained defiant throughout the impeachment process, protesting her innocence and denouncing her accusers.
“I may have made mistakes, but I committed no crimes,” she declared earlier this year. “I will never stop fighting.”
But as the weeks wore on, and a growing number of senators said publicly they would vote against her, her departure became a foregone conclusion. After initially pledging to stage street protests and agitate on Ms. Rousseff’s behalf, many PT supporters fell silent between May and August.
Meanwhile, Brazilians took refuge in the distraction of the Olympic Games. Public opinion surveys indicated that by June the vast majority of Brazilians had tuned out the impeachment proceedings.
Her triumphant adversaries face many challenges.
Since he took over as interim president in May, Mr. Temer, known as an adroit backroom deal maker, has installed a new economic team aimed at undoing many of Ms. Rousseff’s policies. Brazil’s stock market and currency rallied on prospects of her ouster.
But many analysts say Mr. Temer has a very limited window of opportunity to convince financial markets and fellow politicians that he can pass tough austerity measures to set Brazil back on course.
Unemployment now stands at 11.6% while inflation is still hovering near 9% after peaking at 10.7% in January. Trade unions and other groups will resist cuts to entitlements such as pensions. Mr. Temer and his party could absorb additional fallout from the Petrobras investigation.
Opinion polls show Mr. Temer and Ms. Rousseff are equally disliked by the public. Protesters carrying signs reading “Fora Temer” (Temer Out) popped up at the Rio Games.
Regional elected officials, facing municipal elections this fall, will be watching his administration warily.
“Impeachment does not change this scenario much,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves, a Eurasia Group analyst. “It eliminates the risk of Dilma returning, but [Temer] must deal with the real problems of governance.”