Brazil's lower house of Congress voted Sunday to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, setting the stage for her removal from office and a battle over the political future of Latin America's most populous country.
Rousseff is accused of mishandling the country's budget. The allegations against her are unrelated to the multibillion-dollar scandal at the state-run oil company that has led to the imprisonment of political and business leaders. Her popularity -- and that of her Workers' Party -- has plummeted since last year after the economy entered a deep recession.
More than two-thirds of the lower house — the threshold for impeachment — supported the motion. It now goes to the Senate for simple majority approval — a much lower bar to clear. Rousseff would then be temporarily removed from her post while she goes on trial on charges of violating fiscal responsibility laws. In the meantime, her former ally, Vice President Michel Temer, would take over.
"Today's vote is the decisive one for Brazil's crisis and opens a new chapter in our history," said Igor Fuser, a professor of international relations at the ABC Federal University in Sao Paulo.
The small chamber of the lower house was unusually crowded as legislators announced their votes one by one. Some used their time at the microphone to hurl insults at other politicians or try to lead the room in song. One fired a confetti gun after shouting he was voting yes to impeachment.
The Workers' Party has controlled Brazil's presidency since 2003 when Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva began his first term. Over the last weeks, Rousseff and Lula have tried to rally their base of support, which has historically been among unions, the poor and the left, and bitterly contested the validity of the impeachment process.
They accused corrupt politicians of attempting to take advantage of Brazil's political crisis to seize power for themselves and called the impeachment a political coup, because Rousseff had not been charged with a serious crime.
Recent polls showed that about 60% of Brazilians support impeaching Rousseff, and a similar number also support impeaching Temer.
Temer faces the prospect of impeachment for overseeing the same fiscal tactics, but his support among members of Congress may help him avoid removal. He is also accused of participating in an illegal ethanol-purchasing operation.
The impeachment has been overseen by controversial lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha of Temer's PMDB Party, who is being tried in the Supreme Court for corruption.
More than half of the lower house members who voted Sunday face accusations of corruption or serious crimes, while Rousseff does not. Critics of the impeachment have accused lawmakers of trying to create a government that would shield them from further investigation or prosecution, but others insist that the federal police's so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) inquiry will continue unhindered no matter who is in power.
"We're here because we believe in democracy. We oppose the coup," said Maria Celeste Miranda, 50, a public school teacher in Minas Gerais state who came to the capital to protest Rousseff's impeachment. "What we have here today is thieves passing judgment on a woman who's innocent and trying to pretend that's a moral solution."
Under Lula, Brazil experienced an economic boom and tens of millions of people rose out of poverty. As recognition, the country was awarded with the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Like Lula, Rousseff enjoyed wide popularity during her first years in office. But since her reelection by a narrow margin in 2014, Brazilians have been hit by rising unemployment and inflation, and the Lava Jato investigation has exposed widespread corruption in the political class. Lula is also under investigation.
People gathered outside Congress on Sunday voiced their disapproval with the turmoil gripping Brazilian politics. "I came because I'm against this government that has ruined everything and has been proved to be corrupt," said Camila de Melo, 21, an engineering student who arrived on a bus with 40 others from Sao Paulo, Brazil's business capital. "We have to start with the people at the top and that means Dilma. Impeachment is the first thing we have to do. Next, we have to remove others, like speaker Eduardo Cunha."
The last time impeachment was employed in Brazil, in 1992 against then-President Fernando Collor de Mello, the process received near-unanimous support. By contrast, some Brazilians have said they would not recognize the legitimacy of a Temer-Cunha government.
"Most Brazilian people, and most of the market, were looking for relief from the recent years of Rousseff government," said Marcos Troyjo, director at the BRICLab Center on Global Economic Governance at Columbia University, adding that the success of a Temer administration would depend on appointing a respected team and a capable spokesperson to explain that his rise to power was fully legal. "I think Brazil and Temer will be given a grace period, but not a very long one."
Though Temer ran alongside Rousseff and took advantage of her popularity to enter executive office – recent polls indicate only 1% to 2% of Brazilians would vote for him as president – he publicly broke with her and has seemed to be openly campaigning for the presidency for the last few weeks.
"For the first time since democracy was reestablished in the 1980s, we may have a president whose legitimacy is questioned by significant portions of the population," Fuser said. "Some will see a [Temer] government as the outcome of the legitimate impeachment, but others will say he took power as the result of a 'soft coup.'"