Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was left scrambling for votes to save her presidency in a looming impeachment showdown after her main coalition partner walked out of the government.
The PMDB, Brazil's largest party, voted to immediately end its alliance with Rousseff's leftist Workers' Party (PT) and go into opposition. "From today, at this historic meeting of the PMDB, the PMDB withdraws from the government of President Rousseff," said party PMDB vice-president Senator Romero Juca.
The meeting, broadcast live on national television, took no more than three minutes and was accompanied by singing of the national anthem and shouts of "PT out!"
The split plunges Rousseff's government into fresh crisis and, more seriously, reduces her chances of garnering the one third of votes in the lower house of Congress that she needs to defeat a first impeachment vote, expected in April.
"If you look at the numbers, that's basically it," said Everaldo Moraes, a political science professor at Brasilia National University.
Rousseff cancelled a trip to Washington for a nuclear safety summit on Thursday and Friday, the state news agency said. A government spokesman said that in "the current political context," it was not advisable.
Last nail in coffin?
If the lower house votes in favor, an impeachment trial would start in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote would force Rousseff from office. PMDB head Michel Temer - who remains vice-president under Rousseff - will take over as interim president.
Eliseu Padilha, a high-ranking PMDB member who served as minister of civil aviation in Rousseff's government, predicted that Rousseff had only weeks left. "In less than three months we'll have a new government in two months," he told AFP.
Senator Aecio Neves, who heads the PSDB opposition party and who narrowly lost to Rousseff when she won re-election in 2014, said, "The exit of the PMDB is the last nail in the coffin."
The PMDB has 69 of the 513 lower house seats and 60 of these deputies will vote for impeachment, Padilha said. Analysts say that the PMDB's exit could also encourage minor coalition partners to quit.
Lawmakers from the center-right Progressive Party, which has 49 deputies, and the center-left Social Democratic Party, which has 32, said their parties would meet this week on a possible split.
However, Workers' Party loyalists are negotiating intensely with individual deputies, trying to persuade them to vote against the grain.
"We can't give an exact evaluation, but they are exaggerating the support for impeachment among PMDB deputies," said Alfonso Florence, from the Workers' Party, who represents the government in the lower house.
Echoing Rousseff, Florence said the opposition was effectively mounting "a coup." The impeachment case alleges that Rousseff illegally borrowed money to boost public spending and mask the severity of the recession from voters during her re-election.
The Brazilian bar association filed a new impeachment petition on Monday, seeking to expand the accusations to include allegations of involvement by Rousseff in the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal centered on state oil company Petrobras.
Temer, 75, increasingly resembles a politician preparing for power. The growing instability has spilled onto the streets with millions of Brazilians marching against Rousseff and smaller, but still vigorous, rallies held in her defense. Another round of pro-Rousseff protests was planned for this Thursday.
Rousseff has called on her mentor, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to become chief of staff so that he could stiffen resolve in the ranks and put his negotiating skills to use.
But the move prompted a swift backlash from opponents who see the appointment as a bid to give Lula ministerial immunity and protect him from corruption allegations related to the Petrobras probe.
The judge leading the probe controversially released a wire-tapped phone conversation between Rousseff and Lula that was interpreted as showing her giving him the post in order to shield him. Lula has forcefully denied this and the wording of the conversation is ambiguous.
The full Supreme Court is expected to issue a definitive ruling on whether Lula can take up his appointment in the coming days.
Although Lula is the highest-profile politician ensnared in the Petrobras scandal, representatives of many parties, including from the PMDB, also face accusations or have been charged.
The PMDB's speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, faces charges of taking millions of dollars of bribes in the Petrobras corruption scheme and hiding the money in Swiss accounts.
-- AFP via PTI