Brazil's Congress launches Rousseff impeachment marathon

Gerardo MARONNA

Brasília (AFP) - Brazil’s Congress began convening an impeachment committee Monday, putting intense focus on whether President Dilma Rousseff's main coalition partner will remain loyal or take the opportunity to bring her down.

The 65-member committee, with representatives from 29 parties, will hear Rousseff's defense, then recommend whether the matter should be thrown out or pursued in the Chamber of Deputies.

The action in Congress kicks off what could be a months-long battle over the leftist president's fate just as the world's seventh-largest economy finds itself bogged down in recession and fallout from a giant corruption scandal centered on the state oil company Petrobras.

Rousseff is accused of illegal accounting maneuvers in the government's handling of the federal budget. She has repeatedly said she is not guilty and that the accounting tricks were a long-accepted practice under previous governments.

She calls the movement to oust her "a coup."

Work on picking the deputies for the committee was suspended until Tuesday, a pro-government source told AFP. The adjournment appeared to be linked to fierce backroom dealing over the committee's composition.

Key to that struggle was the still unclear position of the PMDB, the main partner with Rousseff's Workers' Party in government.

Rousseff's vice president, Michel Temer, is from the PMDB and has maintained total silence since the impeachment crisis broke last week -- a reaction seen by some analysts as a loud signal that he is preparing to abandon Rousseff.

If Rousseff were impeached, it would be Temer who would take over as interim president.

In another sign of cracks in the coalition, the resignation was confirmed of her civil aviation minister, Eliseu Padilha, who is from the PMDB and considered Temer's right-hand man.

Padilha was quoted by O Globo news site saying that the party is divided over impeachment and that Temer is canvassing its members before announcing his own stand.

"We have to see which side is in the majority," Padilha said.

However Rousseff expressed total confidence in Temer, for the second time in recent days.

"That's information coming out in some of the media," she said of the rumors. Temer "was always extremely correct with me. I don't have to lose confidence in him by one millimeter."

For now, the presidency believes it has enough support to ride out impeachment. The lower house would have to vote by more than two-thirds for the case to be sent for a formal trial in the Senate, where again a two-thirds majority would be needed to remove Rousseff from office.

- Get on with it -

Rousseff's side will be given 10 sessions to argue before the impeachment committee. The committee then has up to five sessions to make its verdict, meaning this first stage could stretch well into December.

Rousseff, only a year into her second term and with popularity ratings of barely 10 percent, has come out swinging since months of rhetoric in Congress ended with the launching of the impeachment process last week.

She called on Congress to speed up and to scrap the annual holidays that run from December 23 through to February, when the carnivals are held.

"We should not have this recess, because we live at a time when we don't have the right to put the country on hold until February 2," she told journalists.

Brazil, host of the 2016 Rio Olympics, is in a deep gloom, with GDP down 4.5 percent in the third quarter year-on-year, and the national currency down a third against the dollar this year.

Rousseff is also tainted by the Petrobras scandal, which has sucked in leading politicians and business figures, exposing the depth of corruption at the highest levels in Brazil.

Even though Rousseff herself has not been linked to any Petrobras-related crimes, the saga is adding to the sense of drift that has plagued her second term.

Some experts believe that Rousseff is being tried for political reasons, as punishment for having presided over a general decline, rather than the arguably technical crimes of accounting malpractice.

The lawyer who initiated Brazil's last successful impeachment of a president, in 1992, called the impeachment unfair.

"Did she commit any of the illicit acts contained in the constitution and the law of impeachment? No," said Marcello Lavenere, who was president of the Brazilian Bar Association when he co-authored a petition for impeachment of then-president Fernando Collor de Mello on corruption grounds.