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Brazil's Dilma Rousseff stripped of presidency. An impeachment explainer

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:48 IST

Brazil's first female president Dilma Rousseff has been removed from office after a 9-month impeachment process came to an end this week. This is despite her tireless last stand against the charges of fiscal irregularities brought against her.

Rousseff thus becomes the second president to be impeached in Brazil's 31-year-old democracy since Fernando Collor was ousted in 1992.

It has been a reasonably traumatic experience for the democracy, coming on top of a two-year corruption scandal and unemployment at its highest in over a decade.

Also read - Brazil: Michel Temer is the new president, after Rousseff ousted in Senate impeachment trial

The opposition in the senate needed 54 of the 81 senators to vote in favour for her to be removed. They got many more, winning in a landslide of sorts, 61-20.

Interim president Michel Temer has officially been sworn in as president to complete Rousseff's original term, which ends in 2018.

The accusation

Rousseff was accused of breaking fiscal responsibility laws in the lead up to her re-election in 2014 when she authorised loans from state banks that hid the depth of the national deficit.

Rousseff countered these charges time and again, proclaiming her innocence up to the end. She told senators that she had done nothing wrong, and that such 'creative accounting' is a normal practice in Brazil.

The suspended president also repeated her allegation that the impeachment process is a "smoke screen" and a "thinly-disguised" coup hatched by corrupt opposition politicians.

Rousseff asserts that this is a 'thinly-disguised' coup hatched by corrupt opposition politicians

"They condemned an innocent woman," she said. "It is a coup against the people and the nation. A misogynist coup. A homophobic coup. A racist coup. It is the imposition of the a culture of intolerance."

Her supporters have highlighted the fact that several of those leading the impeachment charge have been implicated in a massive anti-corruption judicial investigation that has brought down dozens of politicians, including high-level figures within Rousseff's own Workers' Party.

Largest corrupt scandal in Brazil's history

Corruption is an old game in Brazil. The Brazilian group Transparency Brazil says 60% of Brazilian lawmakers are currently under criminal investigation or have already been convicted of crimes ranging from corruption to election fraud.

But between about 2004 and 2014, the state-run energy firm Petrobras - Brazil's largest company and one of the largest corporations in the world - ran one of the largest corruption schemes to ever be uncovered in the world.

The Petrobras corruption scheme saw somewhere upward of $5.3 billion change hands

The scheme, where somewhere upward of $5.3 billion changed hands, was developed during the commodities boom of the 2000s, when oil prices were high, and involved three main groups of players: leaders at Petrobras, top executives at Brazil's major construction companies, and Brazilian politicians.

Operation Car Wash

Because some of the Petrobras money had been laundered through an actual car wash, Brazilian prosecutors launched Operation Car Wash. They made their first arrests in 2014.

In March 2015, the scandal really blew up: Brazil's Supreme Court announced that it was investigating 34 sitting politicians on suspicion of involvement in Petrobras corruption - a huge political scandal.

Since the scandal began, 93 people have been convicted of crimes relating to Petrobras in total, most of them members of Brazil's political or economic elite.

Not directly implicated

But even though Rousseff herself hasn't been implicated, the Petrobras scandal has been most devastating for her and the Workers' Party. That's because Brazilians blame Rousseff for the scandal being allowed to happen - not only was her party in control of the government for the entire duration of the Petrobras scandal, but Rousseff, as former President Lula da Silva's energy minister, personally chaired Petrobras's board from 2003 until 2010.

Everything, the opposition says, occurred under her watch.

Worse, Lula has been personally implicated. Lula allegedly received $7.8 million in payments from construction officials involved in the Petrobras scandal. In March 2016, police raided his home and briefly detained him.

A tough woman

Rousseff was Brazil's first female president, with a storied career that includes a stint as a Marxist guerrilla jailed and tortured in the 1970s during the country's dictatorship.

She has consistently ranked among the three most powerful female politicians in the world, alongside Hillary Clinton and Germany's Angela Merkel.

Rousseff was suspended from office in May, as the impeachment investigation got underway.

Just this week Rousseff remarked that she has often been described as a "hard woman." Yet, she said, "I've never heard a man described as being too hard."

She continued: "I've always described myself as being as a tough woman among meek men."

She will be banned from running for office for eight years.

Just how bad are things in Brazil?

Brazil's meteoric growth under the Lula presidency and first Rousseff term was always unsustainable. It was fueled by exports of commodities like soy, iron, and oil, which were quite expensive during the 2000s. But beginning around 2012, prices fell considerably, destroying Brazil's economy.

To make matters worse, the deficit increased from 2% of GDP in 2010 to 10% in 2015. The debt now makes up 70% of Brazil's GDP, creating a serious inflation problem.

Also read - President Rousseff may have to go. But where is Brazil headed?

"Latin America's biggest economy appears headed for one of its worst recessions ever," the Wall Street Journal's John Lyons wrote in March.

Debt now makes up 70% of Brazil's GDP, creating a serious inflation problem

"Will the impeachment solve months of acute political and economic turmoil in Brazil? The short answer: no. Against the backdrop of a less favorable global economy, a combination of deep recession, fiscal imbalance, ongoing corruption scandal, and the usual political bickering constitutes what many have called a perfect storm," writes Joao Augusto de Castro Neves for Fortune.

Brazil now needs to get its troubled finances in order because years of economic mismanagement have taken a toll on the government's coffers. The second economic challenge will be to regain confidence from investors. A reasonably successful Olympic Games in Rio, after much concern, is also likely to help boost morale.

Rousseff's nemesis

The mastermind of the impeachment drive, which began in December 2015, is Eduardo Cunha, who held a position in Brazil's lower house of Congress until recently. A member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), he is often described as Rousseff's "nemesis".

So far, Cunha is the highest-ranking member of parliament to be charged in conjunction with the Petrobras scandal. Allegedly, Cunha took $40 million in bribes as part of the scheme and hid it abroad in a Swiss bank account.

Eduardo Cunha, the mastermind of the impeachment drive, is often described as Rousseff's 'nemesis'

If convicted, he faces up to 184 years in prison.

This has made him a more unpopular figure than even Rousseff. While 61%of Brazilians believe she should be impeached, 77% believe that he should, according to a recent poll.

His attempt to impeach Rousseff, then, has widely been interpreted as this: He knew he was going down, so he might as well try to take his enemy with him.

Can Temer improve the situation?

Temer promises a "new era" of government for Brazil, but many have scoffed at that statement.

"From today on, the expectations are much higher for the government. I hope that in these two years and four months, we do what we have declared - put Brazil back on track," he said.

In a pronounced swing to the right following 14 years of centre-left Workers' Party government, Temer's raft of policies includes a constitutional amendment that would limit state spending on health and education as part of a 20-year austerity program; and the part-privatisation of prisons, hospitals and creches.

But Temer is just as unpopular a leader as Rouseff. He was booed at the 2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony - which is why he chose not to attend the Closing Ceremony.

But he's been preparing to definitively assume the presidency - he postponed Brazil's ratification of the Paris Accord, originally scheduled for this week, as well as delaying the announcement of a major Chinese infrastructure loan that had initially been offered to Brazil under Rousseff. That announcement is now expected on 2 September.

More in Catch - Dilma Rousseff impeachment: Brazil threatens to descend into a disguised police state

India and other emerging global economies plagued by corruption: Transparency International

First published: 1 September 2016, 7:05 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.