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In Brazil, transsexuals, farmers and fishermen have had one thing in common in recent weeks. They have all been recipients of presidential largesse as the country’s leader, Dilma Rousseff, spends what could be her last days in office desperately trying to drum up support for her fading rule.
With the senate set to vote on Wednesday on whether to impeach her, Ms Rousseff has been jetting around the country distributing largesse — announcing nearly R$203bn in funding for the annual harvest; opening fishing, river and dam projects; increasing the Bolsa Família monthly stipend for the poor by 9 per cent and calling for equal rights for transsexuals using government services — all the while haranguing so-called “coup-mongers” in congress.
In return, the beneficiaries have tried to show some support, albeit often lukewarm, for her cause. “Just to think about this [possibility of impeachment] leaves us very frightened,” said Já Lam Matos, president of the Brazilian Institute of Trans-Masculinity.
The president’s attempted charm offensive comes as her leftist Workers’ Party, or PT, is bracing for the end of 13 years in power and a potentially long winter in opposition, discredited by a vast corruption scandal at state-owned oil company Petrobras and a sinking economy.
Set to replace the PT is a broad coalition led by her vice-president Michel Temer and his centrist PMDB party which is aiming to reverse a steep economic contraction, stabilise sinking public finances and introduce market-friendly reforms.
The impeachment motion, which accuses Ms Rousseff of manipulating the budget, passed in a landslide in the lower house in April, with 367 congressmen voting in favour and 137 against. Now it seems set to do the same in the senate, analysts say.
Fifteen members of a 21-member special committee voted on Friday in favour of a report recommending impeachment. On Wednesday, the full 81-member senate will begin voting on whether to accept the impeachment process in a session that could last into Thursday.
If a simple majority votes to accept the motion, Ms Rousseff will be suspended for up to six months and the senate will begin what amounts to a political trial presided over by Ricardo Lewandowski, a supreme court justice. Mr Temer would assume the interim presidency.
If a two-thirds majority of the senate then votes to impeach her, Ms Rousseff will be sacked and banned from public life for eight years and Mr Temer will become president until the next elections in 2018. Brazilian media polls of senators put the odds at present of 50 in favour of impeachment and 20 against.
Ms Rousseff`s response has been a scorched-earth campaign to make Mr Temer’s job more difficult should he take office, analysts say. The increase in the Bolsa Família, for instance, will make it even harder for Mr Temer to balance the budget. Given that the stipend benefits 46m poor or nearly one quarter of the population according to the government, he will have little choice but to maintain the increase or risk political suicide.
“The last gasp of the Dilma government is to make Temer’s life more difficult both in practical terms and in terms of communications,” says João Augusto de Castro Neves of Eurasia Group.
The last gasp of the Dilma government is to make [vice-president] Temer`s life more difficult both in practical terms and in terms of communications
Ms Rousseff’s and the PT’s other strategy has been to rally their base in the left and among social organisations by arguing that the impeachment is a coup. During her whirlwind tour in the past few weeks, which has taken her especially to the poor north and north-east, she has pursued this theme at every public occasion.
At one event, she bitterly called Mr Temer a “usurper”. When news that her arch-enemy, Eduardo Cunha, speaker of the lower house and original architect of the impeachment process, had been suspended from congress by the supreme court for alleged involvement in the Petrobras case, she said: “Better late than never.”
But while the coup narrative might help to maintain the PT’s base by reassuring voters that Ms Rousseff’s removal is the result of injustice rather than wrongdoing, signs that it is convincing the majority of voters are few.
She had earlier tried to argue that the supporters of the “coup”, led by Mr Cunha, had used the Petrobras investigation to undermine her government. But the house speaker’s suspension by the supreme court in the same scandal has weakened these arguments.
A reputation for arrogance and stilted speaking style, in which her message often becomes lost in non-sequiturs, have also not aided her cause, analysts say. While she has pledged to fight to the end, some argue she would be better off resigning now and receiving the full privileges of a retired president.
Time is running out, however, with the senate poised to decide her fate this week.
“If she doesn’t do it fast [resign] and the process starts in the senate, then the senators will want to go to the bitter end,” said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Washington DC-based Wilson Center.
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