Brazil's Rousseff slams "coup" as former ally takes power

A defiant Dilma Rousseff called Thursday's Senate vote to suspend her as president of Brazil "a coup" by political opponents and vowed to continue to fight her removal from office.

"When an elected president is suspended because of a crime I haven't committed, the name we give it is not impeachment, but a coup," said Rousseff, flanked by supporters, in an address to the nation on Thursday.

"They tried to take by force what they didn't get in votes," she said, slamming the impeachment process as "a judicial farce, a political farce."

After a marathon overnight debate, senators voted overwhelmingly in favour of suspending Rousseff from her duties for 180 days and subjecting her to an impeachment trial on charges of budget irregularities.

Vice President Michel Temer, of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), was sworn in as interim president.

The vote was the culmination of months of political upheaval, as Temer and other erstwhile Rousseff allies abandoned her leftist government, re-elected in 2014, and joined a chorus calling for her ouster.

International reaction to the crisis was measured.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for "calm and dialogue" in Brazil, Ban's spokesperson said, noting that the UN chief has been "closely" following the situation.

"He trusts that the country's authorities will honour Brazil’s democratic processes, adhering to the rule of law and the Constitution," Stephane Dujarric said.

US President Barack Obama remained confident in "the durability of Brazil's democratic institutions to withstand the turmoil there," the White House said.

But Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) Secretary General Ernesto Samper said the decision could be dangerous for the region, and called for due process for Rousseff and the rule of law.

Rousseff is accused of tampering with figures to disguise the size of Brazil's budget deficit during her 2014 re-election campaign. She has denied any wrongdoing.

During the next six months, the Senate will investigate the allegations against her and then conduct another vote, which would require a two-thirds majority to permanently remove her from office.

That threshold was already exceeded in the 55-22 vote on Thursday, even though only a simple majority of Senators was required to suspend her.

Rousseff's suspension ends 13 years of rule by the leftist Workers' Party, which has become increasingly unpopular for its handling of the battered economy and its connection to a massive corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company, Petrobras.

Dozens of politicians and officials are under investigation in the kickbacks scandal, in which construction companies are alleged to have paid billions of dollars in bribes for contracts with the oil giant.

Rousseff was chairwoman of the Petrobras board between 2003 and 2010, when the kickback schemes allegedly took place.

She denies having had any knowledge of wrongdoing and has not been charged in the case. But she has nonetheless been mired in the scandal, which has helped to drive her popularity rating down to 14 per cent.

One of the world's fastest-growing economies until a few years ago, Brazil is now in the midst of one its worst recessions in decades. Some 11 million Brazilians cannot find a job.

Mass street protests broke out in the country last year, reflecting the anger at the government's inability to improve economic conditions, and at a discredited legislature in which 60 per cent of the country's 594 parliamentarians are under accusation or investigation.

Temer, who is perceived as more market-friendly, has called for investor calm. He says he will push for more privatizations, reduce the number of public employees and get the budget deficit under control.

He plans to reduce the number of cabinet positions, seen as a breeding ground for corruption, and make appointments from all political parties except Rousseff's Workers' Party.

A long-time left-wing activist who trained as a guerrilla in her youth in order to fight the military dictatorship, Rousseff was elected Brazil's first woman president in 2010 and was narrowly re-elected to another four-year term in 2014.

"I fought my entire life for democracy," she said in her address Thursday. "I never believed that I would have to fight again against a coup in my country."

In August, hundreds of thousands of athletes, spectators and media will descend on Brazil for the Olympics, a high-profile showcase for the country.

Rousseff ignited the Olympic flame in Brazil's capital last week, but she will now watch the Olympics from the sidelines. Temer will open the games on August 5.

Last update: Thu, 12/05/2016 - 23:34

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