After a watershed day for the world’s fourth-largest democracy, as Dilma Rousseff was finally impeached by a overwhelming congressional vote on charges of budget manipulation, there was—perhaps surprisingly, given the heated nature of the year-long debate that has gripped Brazil —no great public outpouring of emotion.
In an impassioned statement, Rousseff said senators who had voted for impeachment had “condemned an innocent” in “one of the great injustices”. Her replacement, Michel Temer, while trying to maintain a statesmanlike tone in his first address as president—his position was interim before impeachment was completed—still felt the need to deny at length that he had led a “coup” against his former running mate.
“The narrative that Temer has stabbed her in the back will be polarizing for a long time in Brazil,” says Harold Trinkunas, a director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institute. “People will disagree about this for a generation.”
Defiant until the end, Rousseff’s removal came with a hiss not a bang. Small groups of protesters gathered in Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, but nothing like the millions that have deluged the streets at times over the past three years. Rousseff lost the vote in Brazil’s senate 61-20, far beyond the two-thirds majority needed. She has suggested she will now appeal the case to the Supreme Court, although that body has so far repeatedly chosen not to interfere in the case.
The impeached president must now vacate the Palácio da Alvorada, the presidential palace that became her bunker, so Temer can serve out the remaining two years and three months of her term. He was sworn in by congress on Wednesday and has flown to China to attend the G20 summit at Hangzhou.
An unexpected decision yesterday by Chief Justice Ricardo Lewandowski, however, to allow a separate senate vote on whether Rousseff should be barred from office for eight years—which she lost by failing to win a two-thirds majority—means the impeachment president can immediately return to politics. She may contest a senate seat in her home Rio Grande do Sul state in 2018. The decision by the Chief Justice—acting as the presider over the impeachment trial, not as part of Brazil’s Supreme Court, surprised experts. “That decision would appear to have been highly unconstitutional,” says David Fleischer, a professor of politics at the University of Brasília. The constitution states that an impeached president is barred from public office for eight years.
Temer, 75, of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party which was previously in coalition with Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party, has a tough job on his hands. He took over as interim president in May and was widely criticized for naming a cabinet of entirely white men. Polls have shown a majority of Brazilians also want to see him impeached too and he was loudly booed during the Olympic opening ceremony on August 5. He has said he will not run for election in 2018.
His success will depend largely on whether he can rescue Brazil from its worst recession since the 1930s, with GDP falling for six straight quarters. He faces the prospect of implementing austerity in league with a fractious congress. “We will have a strong congress and a weak executive,” says Juliano Griebeler, of the Barral M Jorge political consultancy. “Temer will face some really difficult negotiations.”
Regaining Brazil’s role on the global stage, which led to it hosting the 2014 soccer World Cup and Olympics in succession, is likely to be a longer term challenge. “A major factor in Brazil’s global influence [under Rousseff’s predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] was that they’d looked like they’d found a model to grow fast, alleviate poverty but – unlike China – do it within a democracy,” Trinkunas says. “All of that was undercut by the economic and political crisis.”
Rousseff, a former guerilla who was tortured by the 1964-1985 dictatorship, was re-elected president in 2014, apparently giving her Workers’ Party 16 straight years in power. But her approval ratings fell to single digits thanks largely to the recession and widespread anger among the population at the entire political class.
That was sparked primarily by a $3 billion corruption scandal at state oil giant Petrobras that has enveloped hundreds of leading politicians, laying bare systematic graft. Her predecessor, known as Lula, will stand trial on accusations linked to the scheme and Eduardo Cunha, the then house speaker who initiated the impeachment proceedings, is accused of taking up to $40 million in bribes.
Many of the lawmakers who voted on her impeachment are accused of corruption in that investigation, known as Car Wash, and others. Rousseff has not been implicated and told TIME that she believed her refusal to stifle the investigation by federal police and prosecutors led others to want to oust her.
“I systematically refused to make any agreement with Mr. Cunha,” she said.
This post has been corrected. The original version stated that Rousseff won her second vote. She did win a majority of senators, but failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority.
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