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World News

Brazil's Rousseff says democracy at stake in Senate trial

BRASILIA (Reuters) - A defiant President Dilma Rousseff warned Brazilians on Monday that her conservative opponents were trampling on democracy by using trumped-up charges to oust her and roll back the social advances of the past 13 years.

People walk next to an official photo of Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff, at a camp in support of Rousseff, in Brasilia, Brazil, August 28, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

The leftist leader, appearing before the Senate in a trial expected to remove her from office this week, said Brazil’s economic elite had sought to destabilize her government since her narrow re-election to a second four-year term in 2014.

Rousseff calmly denied charges of breaking budgetary rules and said the impeachment process that has paralyzed Brazilian politics for nine months was a plot to protect the interests of the privileged classes in Latin America’s largest economy.

A future conservative government would slash spending on social programs that helped lift 30 million people out of poverty in the past decade and sell off state assets, including Brazil’s massive offshore oil reserves, Rousseff warned.

“We are one step away from a real coup d’etat,” the former leftist guerrilla said. “I did not commit the crimes that I am arbitrarily and unjustly accused of.”

The 68-year-old Rousseff, an engineer who served as head of the state oil company Petrobras, was hand picked by the founder of the Workers Party, ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to succeed him when he stepped aside in 2012, despite her lack of political experience.

After riding the commodities boom in her first term, Rousseff saw her popularity dwindle to single figures this year amid a deep recession that many Brazilians blame on her government’s interventionist policies and a huge corruption scandal involving Petrobras under the Workers Party government.

Brazil’s first female president told senators that history would judge them and recalled her trial under the military dictatorship, which ruled from 1964-1985, when officers hid their faces to not be recognized in photographs.

She began to choke back tears recalling how she faced death when she was tortured day after day in detention in 1970. “Today I only fear the death of democracy,” she said.

ODDS AGAINST HER

If the Senate convicts Rousseff on Tuesday or Wednesday, as expected, her vice president Michel Temer will be sworn in to serve the rest of her term through 2018.

Temer, 75, has been interim president since mid-May, when Rousseff was suspended after Congress decided it would continue the impeachment process that began in the lower house.

His business-friendly government vows to take unpopular austerity measures to plug a growing fiscal deficit that cost Brazil its investment-grade credit rating last year.

Twenty of her former Cabinet ministers were in the Senate gallery to support Rousseff, including Lula himself.

With the odds stacked against her, Rousseff’s testimony appears to be aimed at making a point for the history books that her impeachment was a travesty, rather than a bid to sway the 81-seat Senate to block her ouster.

Rousseff said she never pocketed public money, and yet her impeachment was led by the former lower house speaker, Eduardo Cunha, who is facing charges of corruption, including taking bribes and having millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts.

“Curiously, I will be judged for crimes I did not commit before the trial of the former speaker who is accused of very serious illegal acts,” she said.

Her appeal to the Senate is unlikely to alter the outcome.

Temer is confident he has the two-thirds of the chamber needed to remove Rousseff, and he has planned an address to the nation on Wednesday before heading to China to attend the summit of the G20 group of leading economies.

“We need 54 votes and we expect to get at least 60,” Temer’s press spokesman, Marcio de Freitas, told Reuters.

He said the more votes Temer received, the stronger would be his mandate to take the difficult measures needed to restore confidence in Brazil’s economy, which is caught in a two-year recession.

Rousseff is accused of using money from state banks to bolster spending during an election year in 2014. She says the money had no impact on overall deficit levels and was paid back in full the following year.

A survey published by O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper on Monday showed 53 senators would vote against Rousseff and only 19 would back her - nine short of the 28 she needs to avoid being ousted. Nine senators have not stated their position.

But even senators not convinced that the accounting charges brought against Rousseff warrant her removal will vote against her because they do not believe she has enough support to govern anymore and end Brazil’s political crisis.

“I will vote against her even though I think it is a tragedy to get rid of an elected president, but another 2-1/2 years of a Dilma government would be worse,” centrist Senator Cristovam Buarque said in a phone interview.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown

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