In a decision widely interpreted as a major defeat for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the country's Federal Accounts Court, known as the TCU, ruled Wednesday that in its opinion the Rousseff's government manipulated its accounts in 2014 to disguise a widening fiscal deficit as she campaigned for re-election.
The federal government maintains that the audit court is criticizing steps taken by the government to maintain social programs for Brazil's poor, such as the widely-praised Bolsa Familia.
The ruling, the first against a Brazilian president in nearly 80 years, essentially argues that the federal government's financial records for 2014 should be rejected.
Politicians fiercely opposed to Rousseff's government, who have been engaged in efforts to destabilize the government, seized the opportunity to once again conspire to oust the democratically elected president.
Opposition leaders reportedly hugged and cheered when the ruling was announced in Congress.
"This establishes that they doctored fiscal accounts, which is an administrative crime and President Rousseff should face an impeachment vote," said Carlos Sampaio, leader of the opposition PSDB party in the lower house.
"It's the end for the Rousseff government," said Rubens Bueno, a lawmaker from the PPS party.
Two opposition lawmakers, Helio Bicudo and Miguel Reale, have already submitted a request to begin impeachment proceedings.
But are opposition politicians jumping the gun?
How Likely is Impeachment?
It's important to understand just what the TCU ruling actually means.
The TCU is an autonomous organ of the state, but its ruling in this case is not legally binding. In effect, its ruling is merely an opinion.
The ruling does not, in fact, establish that a crime has taken place, as some opposition politicians have attempted to claim. Only the Brazilian Congress may legally establish whether or not President Rousseff violated the Budget Law or the Fiscal Responsibility Law.
There are a number of steps that lawmakers must now take before the recommendation by the TCU is accepted or rejected by the Congress.
The TCU ruling will now be taken up by the Joint Budget Commission, known as the CMO, comprised of 31 lawmakers from the lower house and 10 from the upper house.
The chair of the CMO must appoint a rapporteur who will present his or her own findings back to the Joint Budget Commission.
The rapporteur's report will then be subject to amendments by the CMO and only then will the opinion of the commission proceed to the Congress.
The chair of the Joint Budget Commission, Senator Rose de Freitas, from the center-right PMDB party, has specified that the commission will conduct a “technical analysis” only.
“The large political struggle between the government and the opposition, will be fought on the floor of Congress,” said Senator de Freitas.
Click on the image below for more analysis on Brazil's political crisis.
A woman stands beneath a banner during a march in support of the president. (EFE/Antonio Lacerda)
The CMO is unlikely to make its determination until the end of the year. The president of the lower house of the Congress, Eduardo Cunha, himself embroiled in a corruption scandal, said Thursday that Congressional debate over the TCU ruling should occur only in 2016.
Senator de Freitas also said that calls for an impeachment of the president are premature.
"The only legal instrument to support the impeachment is the rejection of the President's accounts, but the opinion of TCU has to be approved by National Congress beforehand," said de Freitas.
Once the Congress receives the opinion of the CMO, it could still opt to either entirely agree, entirely disagree, or partially agree with the TCU.
Only if the Congress agrees with the TCU can it be said that President Rousseff ran afoul of the law.
If the Rousseff government is found guilty of manipulating its accounts, then that could provide a basis to begin impeachment proceedings. Even then, Article 86 of the Brazilian Constitution, which deals with the dismissal of the president, specifies that “the president, during his term of office, can not be held responsible for acts outside the performance of their duties.”
Legal analysts in Brazil have argued that because the issue deals with accounts from 2014, during Rousseff's previous term, that it cannot provide the basis for her dismissal during this, her second term. Ayres Britto, a former justice of the Supreme Court, argues that the TCU ruling could render Rousseff ineligible for future elections but cannot be used to impeach the president.
Electoral Authority Also Rules Against Rousseff
The ruling of the TCU is not the only piece of bad news for President Rousseff to emerge this week. Brazil's top electoral court, known as the TSE, ruled Tuesday that there were grounds to investigate her re-election campaign, including the suspicion of illegal funding from kickbacks involving the state oil firm Petrobras, which is in the midst of a substantial corruption scandal.
The ruling by the TSE only states there are grounds for an investigation. It has not been established that any laws were broken.
The TSE ruling could hypothetically lead to the invalidation of Rousseff's victory in 2014, though the judicial case is expected to last for months if not years and can be appealed to the Supreme Court. In fact, the process could last longer than Rousseff's term, set to expire in 2018.
Those seeking to annul the results, and knock Rousseff from power, have another major challenge ahead of them. It must not only be proven that the there was illegal funding of Rousseff's campaign but also that it was done with the consent of the candidate or her running mate.
As in the case of the TCU ruling, the next step is the appointment of a rapporteur to investigate the findings of the electoral court.
The investigation was requested by Rousseff's challenger in last year's election, Aecio Neves, who has also been accused of corruption, and whose party is seeking to install him as president should the election results be invalidated. The TSE could also call for new elections to be held.
However the removal of the president by the TSE is not something outlined in the constitution and may not survive a court challenge.
Opposition Seeks to Oust Rousseff by Any Means
These two legal challenges facing President Rousseff must also be seen in the context of a political opposition that has been seeking to oust the president since her re-election in 2014.
Right-wing organizations and political parties have backed a series of anti-government marches, the most recent of which took place in mid-August of this year.
These rallies have explicitly sought to remove Rousseff from the presidency, including calls for impeachment proceedings, and others urging the military to intervene.
Supporters of the government consider these efforts to be a move by the opposition to undermine the results of last year's presidential elections and the will of the Brazilian people who reelected Rousseff with over 51 percent of the vote.
In an effort to strengthen her ruling coalition and her ability to move bills though the Congress, President Rousseff partially reshuffled her cabinet last week, giving more posts to junior parties.
However, Rousseff's government still failed to get enough support in Congress to back her efforts to rebalance Brazil's budget. Congress also put off, for a fourth time, a session on whether to back or overturn her vetoes of two spending bills after her government was unable to obtain a quorum despite a cabinet reshuffle last week meant to bolster her support.
Two new leftist coalitions — the People Without Fear Front and the Popular Brazil Front — have emerged to resist these attempts at undermining the election results and efforts by politicians to place the burden of the country's economic crisis on low-income and working class Brazilians.
“The right wants the impeachment so that they themselves can apply the same (neoliberal) adjustments on the backs of the people,” said Luciana Genro, a leading figure in the People Without Fear Front.
That front is planning on holding rallies throughout the country against impeachment and neoliberal reforms on Nov. 8. Nearly 1 Million marched on Aug. 20 against efforts to oust President Rousseff.