By Anthony Boadle and Maria Carolina Marcello
BRASILIA, May 12 – Brazil‘s Senate voted on Thursday to put leftist President Dilma Rousseff on trial in a historic decision brought on by a deep recession and a corruption scandal that will now confront Michel Temer, the vice president who succeeds her.
With Rousseff suspended during the Senate trial for allegedly breaking budget rules, the centrist Temer will take the helm of a country that again finds itself mired in political and economic volatility after a recent decade of prosperity.
The 55-22 vote ends more than 13 years of rule by the left-wing Workers Party, which rose from Brazil‘s labor movement and helped pull millions of people out of poverty before seeing many of its leaders face corruption investigations.
Fireworks rang out in some neighborhoods across Brazil after the vote at the end of a 20-hour session in the Senate. Police had briefly clashed with pro-Rousseff demonstrators in Brasilia on Wednesday, exchanging volleys of tear gas and rocks.
The impeachment process began in the lower house of Congress in December and Rousseff, a 68-year-old economist and former Marxist guerrilla who was Brazil‘s first female president, is unlikely to be acquitted in a trial that could last as long as six months.
A two-thirds majority is needed in the Senate to convict her but the scale of her defeat in the vote on Thursday showed how little support she has.
“Today we are trying to overcome this situation by removing an irresponsible government. We have no alternative,” said Senator Blairo Maggi, one of Brazil‘s biggest soy farmers, who is slated to become agriculture minister in Temer’s government.
Rousseff has denied any wrongdoing and called her impeachment a “coup”.
Temer, a 75-year-old centrist and constitutional scholar who spent decades in Brazil‘s Congress, now faces the challenge of restoring economic growth and calm at a time when Brazilians, increasingly polarized, are questioning whether their institutions can deliver on his promise of stability.
In addition to a towering budget deficit, equal to more than 10 percent of its annual economic output, Brazil is suffering from rising unemployment, plummeting investment and a projected economic contraction of more than 3 percent this year.
“Only major reforms can keep Brazil from moving from crisis to crisis,” says Eduardo Giannetti da Fonseca, an economist and author in São Paulo who has written extensively about the country’s socioeconomic problems.
But those changes, including an overhaul of pension, tax and labor laws and a political reform to streamline fragmented parties in a mercenary Congress, could remain elusive at a time of turmoil.
Many Brazilians are concerned that the end of Workers Party rule could bring back bad times for the poor, who have made great strides in the last decade.
“Has Dilma made mistakes? Of course. But the Workers Party has done so much for us, for the people,” said Benedito Polongo, a 63-year-old janitor outside a shiny Brasilia business center, who said he had no job or bank account before the party came to power. “I fear that those who come after her will erase all that has been done for the poor.”
Rousseff’s government made a last-ditch effort to annul her impeachment but it was rejected by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
An aide said Rousseff planned to dismiss most of her cabinet, save for the central bank president and the sports minister, who is in final preparations for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
The move is meant to frustrate a smooth transition for Temer, whom Rousseff deems a traitor because of his efforts, as leader of the party that was her main ally in Congress, to unravel that coalition and force party colleagues to resign from government posts.
Temer plans to swear in new ministers on Thursday afternoon and is promising pro-market policies to bring Brazil‘s budget deficit under control, rein in inflation and get the economy growing again.
Tensions between pro- and anti-government demonstrators flared in some small demonstrations across Brazil, but the mood remained largely calm as most Workers Party supporters appeared resigned to her ouster.
Brazilian markets have for weeks rallied as investors welcomed the likely dismissal of a president they believe crippled the economy, were largely unchanged on Wednesday.
Wild cards remain for Temer himself, including still-pending investigations by an electoral court into financing for his and Rousseff’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Then there is the far-reaching kickback probe around state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, which has ensnared dozens of corporate and political chieftains and helped set the scene for the discontent that hobbled Rousseff.
Rousseff, energy minister and chief of staff to her predecessor before taking office in 2011, was chairwoman of Petrobras at the time when much of the graft occurred.
She has not been accused of corruption, but the scandal at Petrobras encouraged opposition lawmakers to oust her for disguising the size of the government’s budget deficit in the lead-up to her re-election.
Temer has not been accused of wrongdoing in the scandal either, but some of his allies and party colleagues have. Prosecutors say they are far from finished with the probe.
Though many lawmakers have expressed their desire to join forces and get on with a recovery upon Rousseff’s exit, dozens of parties are jockeying for power in the Temer government and angling to position themselves for new elections in 2018.
“Temer may have a honeymoon, but let’s not forget this was a shotgun wedding,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “Reforms aren’t easy at the best of times and these are for sure not the easiest.”