The embattled speaker of Brazil’s lower house of congress said he was opening impeachment procedures against President Dilma Rousseff, setting in motion what is likely to be a bitter and protracted power struggle in a nation already reeling from a deep recession and its worst-ever corruption scandal.
The impeachment request contends that Ms. Rousseff’s administration breached federal accounting laws in 2014 and 2015, a charge the president has repeatedly denied. Ms. Rousseff said she was “indignant” upon hearing of Speaker Eduardo Cunha’s decision. “My present and my past vouch for my honesty and my unquestionable commitment to the law,” Ms. Rousseff said in a televised address. “We can’t permit indefensible interests to unsettle our country’s democracy.” The action by Mr. Cunha, who faces corruption charges and is battling to keep his own job, culminates a month’s long standoff between rival political parties that has been exacerbated by Brazil’s foundering economy and a massive graft probe centered on oil giant Petróleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras. The impeachment process is expected to last several months as lawmakers assemble their case against the president and Ms. Rousseff braces for her defense.
Ms. Rousseff, whose leftist Workers’ Party, or PT, has ruled Brazil for the past 13 years, has been struggling to keep her governing coalition intact. Her public approval ratings have sunk to around 10%, among the lowest ever recorded for a sitting president. Mr. Cunha carries substantial political baggage of his own. The speaker, a member of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, has been charged by prosecutors with pocketing millions in bribes in connection with the Petrobras kickback scandal, then stashing some of the proceeds in Swiss bank accounts. The speaker has denied all the accusations against him. But a number of opposition politicians, and some from his own party, have called on Mr. Cunha to stand down. The lower house’s ethics committee is deciding whether to start a process that could lead to Mr. Cunha losing his speakership.
“This is bad news that will add a lot of uncertainty and volatility,” said Bruno Rovai, an economist at Barclays Bank in New York. “The whole political scenario will be focused on impeachment” instead of on fixing the economy. The dramatic developments capped months of backroom machinations that have paralyzed Brazilian politics, alienated voters and sapped investor confidence.