Brazil impeachment battle rests on a handful of votes

BRASILIA (Reuters) - With neither side commanding enough firm support in the battle to impeach Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, the outcome of a crucial vote in Congress this month may boil down to a handful of no-shows and abstentions.

Anti-government demonstrators attend a protest against Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in downtown of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

Brazil’s lower house is due to vote within two weeks on a committee report about whether Rousseff, the country’s first female president, broke fiscal laws to secure her 2014 re-election.

With her allies wavering following mass protests against her scandal-hit government, Rousseff risks losing the impeachment vote in the 513-seat lower house. The Eurasia consultancy calculates the odds of her defeat at 60-70 percent.

If the Senate agrees to put her on trial, Rousseff would be suspended from office. Financial markets favor her impeachment on hopes her substitute, Vice President Michel Temer, would introduce more-business-friendly policies.

Yet polls suggest her opponents have not secured the 342 votes - two-thirds of the chamber - they need to take impeachment to this stage.

Nor does Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and its allies have the 171 votes or abstentions needed to block it. Each abstention favors Rousseff by reducing the chances her opponents obtain two-thirds of the chamber.

Brasilia-based consultancy Barral M Jorge Associates estimates the government has 115 firm votes against impeachment versus 213 in favor, with the rest of the votes undecided or not publicly stated, analyst Gabriel Petrus said.

With the government’s fate in the balance, both sides are using every means at their disposal to eke out an advantage. Rousseff’s team is working overtime to build a new coalition, offering jobs in her embattled government in exchange for votes.

“The government is scraping the bottom of the barrel, offering jobs in ministries and money for public works in congressional districts,” said Darcisio Perondi, a lawmaker from Rio Grande do Sul state and a fierce Rousseff opponent.

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Government officials have denied offering public works spending in return for votes or abstentions.


Meanwhile, lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a bitter rival to Rousseff, is seeking to favor impeachment by holding the roll-call vote on a Sunday, when most Brazilians will be at home and can follow which way lawmakers vote on television.

Polls show more than two-thirds of Brazilians support impeachment, after Brazil’s worst recession in decades and a sweeping corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras drained Rousseff’s support.

Congressmen say Cunha plans to start the voting with southern states, where anti-Rousseff sentiment runs strongest, so momentum for impeachment piles pressure on uncertain lawmakers, especially from the northeast, a bastion of Workers’ Party support, who would vote last.

Rousseff suffered a blow last week when her main coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), deserted her.

The PMDB expected smaller parties in the coalition to follow suit, boosting chances that Rousseff would be impeached by Congress and Temer, leader of the PMDB, would take over until the end of her term in 2018.

The Progressive Party, the Republic Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Brazilian Republican Party - with 142 seats in the lower house - signaled they might abandon Rousseff but have held off as the government wooed them with cabinet posts.

Rousseff’s negotiations have been complicated by several PMDB ministers who refused the instruction to resign, preferring to risk expulsion from the party.

Barral M Jorge consultancy estimates that up to 30 percent of the PMDB’s 68 lawmakers could swing one way or the other, depending on how the vote unfolds.

Or they could just abstain, because they are unsure impeachment will succeed and are not prepared to commit themselves to an uncertain post-Rousseff scenario, said Petrus.

“The offer of jobs will lure some, but uncertainty over what comes next will keep others away, preferring not to back Dilma or a future Temer government that might not succeed,” Petrus said. “Their absence will work in Rousseff’s favor.”

Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Hay