BRASILIA Brazil's lower house of Congress began voting on Sunday on whether to back the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in a fiercely contested ballot that could hasten the end of 13 years of leftist rule in Latin America's largest economy.
With 100 votes cast, 73 congressmen voted in favor of Rousseff's impeachment and 27 voted against or abstained.
The opposition needs votes from 342 out of the 513 congressmen to force Rousseff to face an impeachment trial in the Senate on charges of manipulating budgetary accounts to support her 2014 re-election.
The political crisis in Brazil, which comes during its worst recession since the 1930s, has deeply divided the country of 200 million people and sparked a battle between Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer, who would take over if she is dismissed.
Both sides said they had enough votes to win the motion in the session where lawmakers yelled slogans and scuffles broke out in front of the speaker's podium as pro-impeachment legislators waved flags reading: "Goodbye Dear."
Leaders in Temer's centrist PMDB party were confident they could muster two dozen votes more than the 342 needed for impeachment. Government officials acknowledged Rousseff's situation was "very difficult" as they kept seeking votes or abstentions that would favor her.
If Rousseff, Brazil's first female president, loses Sunday's vote, the Senate must decide whether there are legal grounds to hear the case against her, a decision expected in early May.
Should it agree to do so, Rousseff, 68, would be suspended from office and Temer would take over.
Business lobbies have thrown their weight behind the ouster of Rousseff, whom they blame for running Latin America's largest economy into the ground, as they look to Temer to restore business confidence and growth.
In expectation of the vote, which is expected to run late into Sunday, hundreds of thousands of protesters on both sides of the issue took to the streets of major cities across the country.
Rousseff, who was seen out on her habitual morning cycle on Sunday, returned to her residence to lead last-minute deal-making talks along with her charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Some party insiders said Rousseff and Lula had persuaded enough wavering lawmakers to vote in their favor or abstain.
"Our latest calculations are that we have the votes to block impeachment," José Guimarães, the Workers Party leader in the lower house, told reporters inside Congress.
Surveys by leading newspapers, however, showed the government lacked the one-third of votes or abstentions needed to stop the impeachment advancing to the Senate.
Pro- and anti-impeachment demonstrators made their way to the grassy esplanade in front of Congress in Brasilia.
A 6.5-foot-high (2-metre) wall had been erected there stretching for more than half a mile (1 km) to separate both sides, a symbol of the stark political divide in one of the world's most unequal societies.
Thousands of pro-impeachment demonstrators packed Sao Paulo's central Paulista Avenida, draped in Brazilian flags and waving banners reading: "Dilma out." In Rio de Janeiro, supporters of both sides flooded the seafront avenue in Copacabana, separated by riot police.
Opinion polls suggested more than 60 percent of Brazilians supported impeaching Rousseff, whose inner circle has been tainted by a vast corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras (PETR4.SA).
Despite anger at rising unemployment, Rousseff's ruling Workers Party still musters strong support among millions of working-class Brazilians, who credit its welfare programs with pulling their families out of poverty during the past decade.
In the parking lot of Brasilia's soccer stadium, some of her supporters waved red flags and set off firecrackers as they prepared to march on Congress.
"There won't be a coup, there will be a fight," the crowd shouted, referring to Rousseff's view that the move to impeach her had no legal grounding and amounted to a coup.
The impeachment crisis has paralyzed activity in Brasilia, just four months before the country is due to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and as it seeks to battle an epidemic of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in newborns.
While Rousseff herself has not been personally charged with corruption, many of the lawmakers who will decide her fate on Sunday have been.
Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog group in Brasilia, said more than 300 of the legislators who will vote - well over half the chamber - were under investigation for corruption, fraud or electoral crimes.
"We need to make this country viable again," said Paulo Tosi Marques, 66, a retired business administrator at the pro-impeachment demonstration in Sao Paulo. "Look at what we have - corruption, inflation and an unprecedented crisis."
Brazil's stocks and currency have been among the world's best-performing assets in recent weeks on growing bets that Rousseff would be removed from office allowing Temer to adopt more market-friendly policies.
Sources close to the vice president told Reuters he was considering a senior executive at Goldman Sachs in Brazil for a top economic post.
Whoever governs the country in coming months will inherit a toxic political environment, a divided Congress, rising unemployment and an expected contraction of 4 percent this year in the world's ninth-largest economy.
(Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassú in Brasilia and Guillermo Parra-Bernal in Sao Paulo; Writing by Daniel Flynn, Stephen Eisenhammer and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Alan Crosby and Peter Cooney)
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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2016 03:45 AM