RIO DE JANEIRO — The acting speaker of the lower house of Brazil’s Congress on Monday annulled last month’s vote for impeaching President Dilma Rousseff, potentially delaying and complicating the process that was widely expected to see the embattled leader suspended later this week.
A Senate vote on whether to accept the matter and put Rousseff on trial had been scheduled for Wednesday, with the expectation that the vote would lead to Rousseff’s immediate suspension and Vice President Michel Temer taking over. But Monday’s move by acting Speaker Waldir Maranhao evidently means the matter will go back to the Chamber of Deputies and could possibly delay the process by days or weeks.
However, Senate Head Renan Calheiros told the Senate he intended to ignore the decision and move forward with the proceedings as scheduled. He slammed Maranhao’s decision as “toying with democracy,” and added: “It’s not up to the head of the Senate to say whether the process is fair or unfair.”
The speaker’s surprise move touched off a firestorm of debate over the move’s legality and its possible implications.
Under the terms of the decision, the lower house would have five sessions to hold another vote on whether to send the impeachment process against Rousseff to the Senate. The lower house overwhelmingly voted to move forward with the process last month and it is those April 15-17 sessions that Maranhao annulled.
In his decision, Maranhao argued the process was tainted by irregularities that invalidated the April 17 vote in the lower house. The decision grew out of allegations by Solicitor General Jose Eduardo Cardozo, one of Rousseff’s most articulate defenders, contending that political parties should not have recommended to their members whether or not to vote in favor of impeachment.
Maranhao voted against impeachment in the April 17 vote.
In a news conference in the capital, Brasilia, Cardozo hailed the decision, saying it would help correct what he alleged were the illegalities within the impeachment process.
Opposition leaders already threatened to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, and observers said the government could do the same if the Senate decided to ignore the request and hold its vote anyway.
Rousseff is battling impeachment over allegations that her government violated fiscal rules, in what critics say was a bid to artificially bolster the country’s flagging economy. Rousseff has said that prior presidents used such fiscal maneuvers and that the impeachment effort amounts to a “coup” aimed at removing her and her left-leaning Workers’ Party, which has governed the country for 13 years.
Rousseff reacted cautiously to the news at an event about education in Brasilia, suggesting it wasn’t entirely clear what was happening.
“We have a difficult fight ahead of us,” she said. She also called for caution, saying that “we live in a time of cunning and wile.”
Maranhao took over the reins in the Chamber of Deputies after former Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who was the driving force behind the impeachment effort, was suspended over corruption and obstruction of justice allegations against him.
In a statement, Cunha slammed Maranhao’s action as “absurd, irresponsible and against the rules.” He also lashed out at news reports suggesting that he might have helped orchestrate the decision behind the scenes in a bid to reassert control over the impeachment process.
Opposition congressman Pauderney Avelino said that from his point of view, the impeachment process was out of the lower house’s control. “The process in the Chamber is done with,” Avelino said.
The head of the Brazilian Order of Attorneys, Claudio Lamachia, said the organization “regards the decision with extreme worry.”
“This sort of action responds to the momentary interests of certain political groups but ignores legitimate decisions that have already been made,” Lamachia was quoted as saying in a statement. “Brazil is in a political intensive care unit, at the peak of an ethical and institutional crisis.”
The Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based political and economic risk consultancy, said in a statement, “The decision certainly took most observers by surprise, but we think it very unlikely to hold.”
“But one way or another, the Supreme Court will most likely have to weigh in,” it said.
The impeachment proceedings come as Brazil is grappling with the biggest recession in decades, a corruption probe that has ensnared top politicians and prominent businessmen and also an outbreak of the Zika virus. The country’s showcase city, Rio de Janeiro, is gearing up to host the Olympics in August.
Rousseff’s once-overwhelming public support has eroded with the onslaught of bad news, with her approval ratings dipping into the single digits in recent months. While polls have suggested broad public support for her impeachment, they have also pointed to widespread trepidation about who might replace her.