No 'White Knight' to Rescue Brazil from Political Crisis


Some are charged with bribe-taking, others electoral crimes and one with forming a gang: Meet the men overseeing the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

The first woman to lead Latin America's biggest country could be ejected one year into her second term on charges that her government illegally managed the federal budget.

But many of the politicians directly responsible for Rousseff's fate do not have clean hands.

Of the 65 congressional deputies elected in controversial circumstances Tuesday to a committee scrutinizing the impeachment case, about 30 percent face criminal probes, according to a detailed count by specialist website Congresso em Foco.

The architect of the impeachment drive himself, house speaker Eduardo Cunha, has been charged with taking as much as $40 million in bribes. He allegedly stashed the loot -- part of a vast corruption network centered on state oil giant Petrobras -- in secret Swiss accounts.

Dozens of other senators and deputies also face Petrobras-related charges.

Throw in scenes of deputies brawling on television this week, or reports that the agriculture minister, Katia Abreu, threw a glass of wine in the face of a senator at a dinner late Wednesday, and the idea that exchanging Rousseff for another leader would clean up Brazil's politics looks ever less likely.

"There's no white knight," says University of Brasilia politics expert David Fleischer. "There's no national savior riding from the horizon."

Tuesday's election of the impeachment commission encapsulated the mix of bad tempers and questionable legality plaguing the capital Brasilia.

Pro-Rousseff and opposition deputies pushed and screamed during voting to form the commission, which will recommend whether or not Congress should impeach the president. The Supreme Court intervened hours later to suspend the commission for a week, citing irregularities.

The O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper called the scenes "a scandalous and depressing spectacle."

"The chamber was turned into a circus. We are living in a degrading and humiliating situation," said Julio Delgado, from the Brazilian Socialist Party.

On Thursday, another group of deputies punched and shoved each other on national television.

This time they were members of the house ethics committee, which has repeatedly tried and failed to decide whether it should open a probe into the powerful Cunha.

Fleischer estimated that about 20 percent of Congress members as a whole face criminal investigations, many of them linked to Petrobras.

These include senior figures like key Rousseff ally Senator Delcidio do Amaral and even a former president, Fernando Collor de Mello. Collor resigned from the presidency in 1992 during his own impeachment trial, before making a comeback as a senator.

For Fleischer, the fighting in the chamber was a new low point. "Because it's an ethics committee, you wouldn't really expect that."

Fleischer said Brazilians are well aware of "corruption across the board," but that in the face of recession and growing joblessness Rousseff naturally gets the blame.

"They take their vengeance out on Dilma because they are going through a terrible crisis," he said. "The president is a sort of lightening rod."

But Gabriel Petrus, a political consultant at Barral M Jorge, said the impeachment push has been mounted deliberately to take heat off a political class running scared from the Petrobras case prosecutors.

"They're diverting the attention away from their political scandals to a single figure, Rousseff, against whom there is still no concrete evidence of corruption," Petrus said. "It seems outrageous for our democracy."

In declaring her innocence, Rousseff has made pointed references to Cunha, even without naming him, saying, "I have no accounts abroad, I've never hidden assets from the public," and underlining that she has not been accused of stealing or taking bribes.

However, analysts say she's tainted by the fact that her Workers' Party and much of her inner circle have been implicated in the Petrobras scheme.

If Rousseff is impeached, her vice president, Michel Temer, would automatically take over.

"He has a clean slate and no serious accusations against him," Fleischer said. "So far."

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