Rousseff's Future Faces Vote in Divided Brazil

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A woman takes pictures of messages written on protective fences set up to separate demonstrators who are for and against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Brazil's lower house of Congress will decide on Sunday whether to recommend impeaching President Dilma Rousseff on charges of manipulating budgetary accounts in a vote that could hasten the end of 13 years of leftist Workers Party rule.

The political crisis, which comes amid Brazil's worst recession since the 1930s, has deeply divided the South American country and sparked an acrimonious fight between Rousseff and her Vice President Michel Temer, who would take over if she is dismissed.

In a frenzied round of last-minute deal-making, Rousseff appeared to be clawing back the votes of some wavering lawmakers but polls showed the leader still lacks the one-third of votes needed in the 513-seat lower house to avoid being sent for trial in the Senate.

Rousseff's charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has been leading the deal-making to keep her in office and drafted in governors from several states to pressure legislators on Saturday, swinging momentum back in Rousseff's favor.

"The governors' participation is proving decisive," said Paulo Teixeira, one of the Workers' Party's leaders in the lower house.

On Sunday morning, pro- and anti-impeachment protesters gathered before making their way to the grassy esplanade in front of Congress. There a 6.5-foot high wall has been erected stretching for more than 0.6 of a mile to separate both sides, a symbol of the stark political divide in one of the world's most unequal societies.

Buses carrying some of the thousands of police being deployed in the capital were arriving and officers getting into position. Further protests are expected in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from both sides taking to the streets before voting starts at 2 p.m. The vote is expected to run into Sunday evening.

Polls suggest more than 60 percent of Brazil's 200 million people support impeaching Rousseff, whose inner circle has been tainted by a vast corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras.

The Workers Party, however, still musters strong support among millions of working class Brazilians, who credit its welfare programs with pulling their families out of poverty during the last decade.

Half of Congress under investigation

The impeachment crisis has paralyzed activity in Brazil, just four months before the country is due to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and as it seeks to battle an epidemic of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in newborns.

While Rousseff herself has not been personally charged with corruption, many of the lawmakers who will decide her fate on Sunday have.

Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog group in Brasilia, says more than 300 of the legislators who will vote on Sunday—well over half the chamber—are under investigation for corruption, fraud or electoral crimes.

If Rousseff loses Sunday's vote, the Senate must decide whether there are legal grounds to hear the case against her, a decision expected in early May.

Should it agree to do so, Rousseff would be suspended from office and Temer would automatically take over.

Financial markets in Brazil have rallied strongly in recent weeks on hopes that Rousseff's dismissal would usher in a more business-friendly Temer administration. Sources close to the vice president told Reuters on Friday he was considering a senior executive at Goldman Sachs in Brazil for a top economic post.

Whoever governs the country in the coming months, however, will inherit a toxic political environment, a deeply divided Congress, rising unemployment and an expected contraction of four percent this year in the world's ninth largest economy.