IT SMACKED of desperation. On April 14th—just a day before the lower house of Congress was due to begin debating the possible impeachment of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff—the attorney-general, José Eduardo Cardozo, petitioned the Supreme Court to halt proceedings. Ms Rousseff is accused of using accounting trickery to hide the true size of the budget deficit. But, the government claimed, the commission which days earlier had recommended sending her case to the Senate for trial had considered unrelated topics, thus infringing her right to a proper defence. They included allegations—unfounded, Ms Rousseff’s people protested—that she had attempted to interfere in a corruption probe centred on Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company.
As expected, the court chose not to second-guess the legislature. A majority of justices saw the move for what it was: a tacit acknowledgment that the government is unlikely to muster the one-third of 513 deputies necessary to block impeachment (the vote is due on April 17th). Ms Rousseff “has lost the conditions to be president”, said Gilmar Mendes, a court member who has made no secret of his antipathy towards her. “For a poor player, even their own legs can trip them up,” he scoffed.
Ms Rousseff has been off her game for a quite some time. Last month the government, led by her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), lost its main ally, the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) of the vice-president, Michel Temer. This week three other centrist parties spurned offers of plush ministerial posts and defected from her governing coalition. Pundits now put Ms Rousseff’s chances of mustering the one-third of the votes she needs to avoid impeachment at a mere 5-15%. Punters on Predictit, an online betting market, give her odds of one in nine to survive in office until the end of the year.
With the president’s weekend defeat close to assured, minds are turning to the day after the vote. It could stretch to a month. Ms Rousseff will only have to step down once a simple majority of senators agree to start an impeachment trial. If and when that happens, Mr Temer will assume presidential duties for up to 180 days while the trial is conducted. (If it is still under way at that point, she would once again take office.)
Her foes are pressing for a speedy Senate vote on whether to hold a trial, in the hope of ensuring a smooth transition to a Temer administration. But Renan Calheiros, the Senate’s Speaker—who, though a PMDB member, has remained loyal to Ms Rousseff—has said he will not rush, and a vote may not happen until May 15th. Never mind that it looks like a foregone conclusion: Estado de São Paulo, a newspaper, reckons there are already at least 42 pro-impeachment votes in the 81-seat upper house.
It is only fitting, one might say, for Congress’s deliberative chamber to deliberate carefully. But procrastination creates a dangerous limbo in which Ms Rousseff will no longer govern in practice, and Mr Temer not yet on paper. In the meantime, tempers on the streets could flare. Some 150,000 of Ms Rousseff’s supporters are expected in the capital, Brasília, over the weekend, alongside as many opponents. In a sad illustration of a country divided, the police have erected a steel fence through the middle of the grassy esplanade stretching in front of Congress to keep the rival factions apart.
Ms Rousseff’s approval is barely out of single digits. But the PT’s hard-core supporters remain well organised, and potentially disruptive. They will not make life easy for Mr Temer, whom they paint as a “coup-monger” engaged in an undemocratic power-grab. The PT has said its opposition would be “total”. To say that the country will be convulsed by social strife “is basically obvious, not so much a threat”, Guilherme Boulos, leader of the radical Homeless Workers’ Movement, has warned. Vagner Freitas, who heads CUT, Brazil’s biggest, pro-PT trade union, has threatened a general strike.
All this bodes ill for Mr Temer’s most urgent task: passing reforms aimed at pulling Brazil out of its worst recession since the 1930s. This week the IMF once again revised its forecast for Brazilian GDP downwards, to a year-on-year contraction of 3.8% (after a similar fall in 2015). To boost confidence, Mr Temer would need first to tackle the budget deficit, now equal to 10.8% of GDP. That would mean painful spending cuts and tax rises. He has spoken of reforms to unaffordably generous pensions and the rigid labour market. But it is unclear how much support for such measures, some of which require constitutional amendments, he can count on among his PMDB colleagues, let alone Congress as a whole—especially in the run-up to October’s local elections.
Unhelpfully, a recent poll showed that 58% of Brazilians want Mr Temer, too, impeached—virtually the same as the 61% who said Ms Rousseff should be ousted. So does one Supreme Court justice, who has ordered—curiously in the eyes of most jurists—the PMDB’s lower house speaker, Eduardo Cunha, to start impeachment proceedings against the vice-president for the same accounting manoeuvres as those attributed to Ms Rousseff. The decision is pending, Mr Cunha says (which probably means that it has been shelved).
Further clouding the outlook, Mr Temer’s party—though not the vice-president himself—is as enmeshed in the Petrobras scandal as the PT. Six PMDB congressmen, including Mr Calheiros and the party’s national leader, Senator Romero Jucá, are under investigation in it. Mr Cunha has been indicted for corruption and money-laundering by the Supreme Court. (All deny wrongdoing.) If, as interim president, Mr Temer were to travel abroad or fall ill, Mr Cunha would temporarily assume Brazil’s highest office.
Mr Temer’s talk of a “unity government” is thus competing with the notion, increasingly popular among Brazilians, that one set of crooks is being replaced by another. In an audio embarrassingly leaked this week, Mr Temer addresses the nation as if he has assumed power; he waxes eloquent about economic reforms but makes no mention of corruption. Speculation is swirling that he may try to pare back the Petrobras probe (though Brazilians fed up with bribery would not tolerate that). Ms Rousseff looks like she is on her way out. Tragically for Brazil, it is far from clear what will follow her.
News: THE ECONOMIST