Brazil president's allies warn of impeachment 'storm'

Damian Wroclavsky

Brasília (AFP) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's allies appealed Thursday to the Supreme Court to block impeachment proceedings, warning of a political "storm" in Latin America's biggest country.

The day after the speaker of the lower house of Congress triggered the impeachment process against Rousseff on grounds that she illegally manipulated government accounts, her Workers' Party sprang into action.

"The mere opening of the procedure is capable of causing a real political, administrative, economic and social storm, with international repercussions," said the party's appeal to the Supreme Court, also warning of a "lack of procedural guarantees" for Rousseff.

The leftist party's strong stand, following a defiant and angry statement from Rousseff late Wednesday, signaled the start of a political fight that experts say will paralyze a country already suffering from a deepening recession and a spiraling corruption scandal centered on state oil giant Petrobras.

If the impeachment proceedings clear all hurdles, it could take as long as six or seven months before a final decision is made on Rousseff's fate, analysts say.

Despite the warnings of turmoil, the Sao Paulo stock market leapt more than four percent on opening and closed 3.29 percent up on the day, reflecting the business community's hope that impeachment would finally bring a resolution to months of political drift in the world's seventh biggest economy.

- Accusing the accuser -

Paulo Pimenta, a Workers' Party deputy, told AFP complaints filed at the Supreme Court argue that Speaker Eduardo Cunha is using the impeachment drive to save his own career after being accused of taking bribes in the Petrobras scheme.

The Supreme Court appeal charges Cunha with "abuse of power and using the legislative power structure to defend himself" from moves to strip him of his post, Pimenta said.

As speaker, Cunha alone has authority to accept or turn down petitions for the president's impeachment and he accepted one filed by several lawyers alleging that Rousseff used illegal methods to mask holes in the government budget.

On Thursday, he set the machinery in motion by ordering creation of a special committee featuring representatives of all the parties in the lower house that will decide whether to continue considering impeachment.

If the 66-strong committee decides yes, the case would go to a vote in the full house. If a two-thirds majority approves there, it then goes to the upper house for an impeachment trial, where another two-thirds majority would force Rousseff from office.

- Can Rousseff survive? -

Experts are divided on Rousseff's chances.

On paper she can easily muster more than one third of votes in the lower house, which would kill the impeachment process at an early stage. However, with voter approval ratings of around 10 percent, she has such little political clout that allies may desert her, analysts say.

"The government has the advantage, because it only needs a third of votes to block impeachment," Alberto Almeida, director of the Instituto Analise, told AFP. "Probably the government has these votes."

Also possibly helping Rousseff is that the allegations against her are not seen as serious as the full-blown corruption charges facing the last president forced from office, Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992.

Rousseff insists she will be cleared.

"My past and my present attest to my moral probity and my irreproachable commitment to the law," she said late Wednesday.

She got support from her far more popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who said in Rio that he was "indignant at what they're doing with this country."

But the simple fact of an impeachment process at a time when Brazil is already in the throes of the Petrobras scandal -- which has netted top politicians and business executives -- means Rousseff is in danger.

"The problem is that once you get the impeachment committee rolling, a lot of new information comes out," said David Fleischer, a political science professor at Brasilia University.

- Economic nosedive -

Brazil is in a deepening recession and risks entering depression.

Rousseff has been unable to get Congressional approval for austerity measures and tax increases that aim to rebalance the budget and restore investor confidence.

That gridlock "will continue and get worse. She can't approve anything in Congress. She has zero governability," Fleischer said.

Looking longer term, however, markets welcomed the prospect of a resolution to a crisis that has been dragging on already for months. A Rousseff departure could open the door to the return of a more pro-business president such as Senator Aecio Neves, who was narrowly defeated by Rousseff in her re-election last year.

Rousseff is widely blamed for a lack of leadership during Brazil's economic drift which has seen third-quarter GDP fall 4.5 percent year-on-year.

Petrobras was among the shares jumping in value in the wake of the impeachment announcement.