Dilma Rousseff out? Here's why the Brazil president was impeached

Brazil's Senate voted Thursday to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, a move that temporarily removes her from office while a trial is conducted. Rousseff is accused of using accounting tricks to hide budget deficits and bolster an embattled government. Rousseff has long argued she did nothing wrong.

The fight, though, continues. Rousseff has vowed to reverse what she calls a "coup" through legal defense, strident political opposition and with street protests by left-wing supporters of her Workers' Party.

The Senate will decide over the coming months whether to definitively remove Rousseff as head of state on charges she fudged the government budget to cover up shortfalls ahead of her 2014 reelection.

Here's how we got to this point and what future holds for Rousseff and Brazil:

2014 reelection

On 26 October 2014, Rousseff was narrowly reelected Brazil's president for another four-year mandate, continuing the policies of her much more popular predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known universally as Lula.

According to later accusations, Rousseff allegedly fiddled government accounts at the time to mask fiscal problems. Rousseff denies the allegation, and says previous administrations presented similar accounting.

Recession in 2015

In June 2015 Brazil tipped into its worst recession in at least a quarter of a century. The economy shrank 3.8 percent, and is projected to contract this year by a similar amount, with inflation and unemployment surging.

Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff leaves Planalto Palace in Brasilia. AFP

Brazil's suspended President Dilma Rousseff leaves Planalto Palace in Brasilia. AFP

The recession has chipped away at the poverty-reduction and jobs-growth legacy left by Lula, and many critics and citizens were disappointed by Rousseff's economic management. Her popularity tumbled.

On 2 December 2015, the lower house of Congress launched the impeachment process against Rousseff, who declared her "outrage."

A week later, on 8 December, Brazil's Supreme Court halted the push after ruling that a congressional committee created to handle the issue should have been elected by an open vote.

2016: The ire of March

On 4 March 2016, Lula was briefly detained by prosecutors probing a massive corruption scandal involving kickbacks to politicians from the state oil company Petrobras. Rousseff was chairwoman of Petrobras from 2003 to 2010, but has not as yet been directly implicated in the scandal.

Less than two weeks later, on 13 March, up to three million people demonstrated across the country against corruption and against Rousseff, whose popularity dived to under 15 percent.

On 16 March, Rousseff named Lula her new chief of staff, a post equivalent to prime minister.

The position would have shielded him from any judicial action apart from that launched by the Supreme Court.

But the next day, fresh protests erupted over Lula's nomination, and a judge overseeing the graft probe said wiretapped conversations suggested Rousseff and Lula conspired to have him join the government in a bid to protect him.

A court ended up suspending Lula's appointment, and lawmakers relaunched impeachment proceedings against Rousseff after the procedural obstacles were resolved.

On 22 March, Rousseff defiantly declared she would "never resign" and that she committed no crime.

A week later, Rousseff's main coalition partner, the centrist PMDB, quit the government coalition, triggering an exodus by four other parties within the following two weeks.

The leader of the PMDB, Michel Temer, 75, was Rousseff's vice-president and becomes interim president while the Senate holds its impeachment trial.

Vote for impeachment

On 17 April, Brazilian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to authorize impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, and the matter was sent to the Senate.

On 9 May, the newly appointed speaker of the lower house of Congress — replacing a rival of Rousseff's who had been a driving force for impeachment — created a kerfuffle by declaring the lawmakers' vote invalid.

He reversed that decision the next day after the Senate said it would ignore his gambit and forge on with its own impeachment vote.

On 12 May, after an all-night debate, the Senate easily decided to put Rousseff on trial, by 55 votes to 22.

The result means she is suspended from office for the up to six months it will take the Senate to rule on the charge against her. A two-thirds majority is needed to impeach her.

Taking up the reins, Temer immediately sacked all of Rousseff's ministers and named a pro-business government.

Does Rousseff have options?

Rousseff has repeatedly vowed to fight what she characterizes as a modern-day coup d'état. Speaking Thursday after the impeachment vote, Rousseff said she would use "all legal means" in that effort.

In reality, however, Rousseff has few options. Appeals to the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country's highest court, have failed. Last month, she said she might take her case to Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. However, it's highly unlike that members of Mercosur, which depend greatly on Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, would risk alienating the incoming president.

What's expected of Temer?

Temer has said he would expand popular social welfare programs, though he has also signaled he would reduce government spending and privatize many state-run companies.

He has formed a market-friendly cabinet with pro-business figures in an attempt to restore confidence. He has appointed as finance minister Henrique Meirelles, who headed the central bank during one of Brazil's most stable and prosperous periods: the two administrations of former president Lula, when the country's economy grew 4 percent on average.

Can Temer really turn the economy around?

Economists say one of the biggest problems is high government spending, particularly to maintain a very generous pension system. Trying to make structural reforms has proved impossible for previous administrations, including Rousseff's.

It remains to be seen whether Temer will have the political capital, or desire, to float measures that will be particularly unpopular at a time when the country is already suffering its worst recession since the 1930s.

What about cleaning up corruption? 

Graft is so endemic in Brazil that around 60 percent of the 594 lawmakers in Congress are facing allegations of corruption or other forms of wrongdoing.

Anger over a multi-billion dollar kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras damaged Rousseff. While she was never implicated, much of the alleged corruption happened during the 13 years that the Workers' Party was in power.

Temer himself has been implicated — though never charged or arrested — in the Petrobras probe. Many worry that he'll try to weaken the investigation.

What's the upshot?

For government supporters, the impeachment push amounts to a coup because Rousseff has not been charged with a crime. They say Brazil's traditional ruling class has been unnerved by the social movement under Rousseff's Worker's Party and is seizing the opportunity to take back power.

Opponents say the administration's maneuvering of funds was illegal and an attempt to mask problems that exacerbated the recession, such as huge budget gaps that have surfaced over the last year. They say impeachment can't be considered a coup because it's allowed in the constitution.

Put another way, this conflict is far from over.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: May 13, 2016 12:24 PM

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