Brazil weighs up toppling President

A poster with a picture of Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva behind bars carries the message in Portuguese: "Lula in chains". Photo / AP
A poster with a picture of Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva behind bars carries the message in Portuguese: "Lula in chains". Photo / AP

Brazil's Lower House of Congress has launched impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff after thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in a worsening political situation as an enormous political corruption scandal threatened two of their most powerful leaders.

Legislators approved a committee of 65 members that will study whether there are grounds to remove the President for manipulating government accounts.

And former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Rousseff's chief of staff amid the protests, legal challenges and with an absent vice-president as the political crisis that has paralysed Latin America's largest nation intensifies.

A judge moments later blocked the appointment. The injunction suspending Silva's nomination, brought by a federal judge in Brasilia, was widely expected as such tactics are often used to delay or interrupt political appointments and decisions.

Legislators voted 433-1 to install the committee that is tasked with reporting to the full Lower House.

Approval from two-thirds of the 513 members of the Lower House would be needed to proceed to a formal trial in the Senate.

The opposition request to impeach Rousseff alleges that her Government manipulated accounts in 2014 to allow her to boost public spending in the run-up to her re-election in 2014.

The call for impeachment has become a test for Rousseff's survival in a political storm created by a widening corruption scandal and Brazil's worst recession in decades.

According to critics, Rousseff appointed Silva as a minister to shield him from a wide criminal probe on kickback schemes at state-run oil company Petrobras, dubbed Carwash.

Flanked by several ministers, the former President and Rousseff's predecessor signed his acceptance term in a ceremony at the presidential palace, where government supporters chanted "there will be no coup". Outside the palace in Brasilia, the country's capital, and in cities including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, thousands of protesters gathered demanding the President's resignation and Silva's arrest.

Demonstrators call for the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and protest the naming of her mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Photo / AP
Demonstrators call for the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and protest the naming of her mentor, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Photo / AP

"Current circumstances give me the magnificent chance of bringing to my government the biggest political leader in this country," Rousseff said in her speech. "Coup supporters won't bring me to my knees."

Vice-President Michel Temer skipped the ceremony, increasing speculation that his PMDB party, the largest in the government alliance, would depart from the ruling coalition.

Tension escalated on Thursday after federal Judge Sergio Moro released phone recordings of a conversation between Rousseff and Silva, obtained through a police wire tap.

In one of the recordings, Rousseff said she was sending Silva a document confirming his appointment to her Cabinet and that he should use it only when needed. The conversation increased speculation that Rousseff was protecting her predecessor, as ministers have special legal status and can only be indicted by the Supreme Court.

In another chat with Rousseff's former chief of staff, Jaques Wagner, Silva asked for the President to intervene with a Supreme Court justice on his behalf.

The presidential palace criticised Moro's decision to publish the recordings, saying it was an affront to the rights and guarantees given to the head of state. Silva's lawyer Cristiano Zanin said on GloboNews that the judge is trying to cause social upheaval, without commenting on the content of the discussions.

Prosecutors had sought a warrant for Silva's arrest after charging him last week with money laundering and making false declarations. A state judge who was considering the request deferred the decision to Moro on Tuesday. The former president has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Rousseff told reporters on Thursday that she nominated Lula to bolster her Government as it tries to revive the economy, denying claims she was protecting him from Moro.

"I don't understand, when people talk about this case, they create this theory" that Silva is hiding from the investigation, she said.

"Let's be frank here. Lula strengthens my Government, and there's people who don't want him to do that."

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and President Dilma Rousseff. Photo / AP
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and President Dilma Rousseff. Photo / AP

Dilma Rousseff

Who: President, Silva's former chief of staff.

Investigated: Calls for Rousseff's impeachment have centred on allegations, unrelated to Petrobras, that she broke budget rules intentionally to boost spending as she campaigned for re-election in 2014. A 65-member impeachment committee of the Lower House will now formally begin studying whether there are sufficient grounds to remove her.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Who: Former President, union leader and sworn in as Rousseff's chief of staff.

Investigated: For his alleged role in a multibillion-dollar scheme in which kickbacks and bribes were paid on fat contracts at state-run oil company Petrobras. Dozens of powerful executives and politicians have been convicted while the probe has recovered US$795 million in stolen money. Prosecutors accuse Silva of concealing ownership of an oceanfront apartment that was built and furnished by one of the Petrobras contractors in the graft scheme.

- Washington Post, Bloomberg, AAP

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