Brazil’s sport minister resigns with Olympics months away

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is expecting to hear whether the country’s Supreme Federal Court will deal her a knockout blow or a saving grace.

Rousseff is awaiting a ruling that could destroy her presidency while many of her key political allies remain ensnared in a wide-ranging corruption scandal.

The case before the court involves Rousseff’s appointment of ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who faces a corruption investigation, to her Cabinet — a move that would help shield him from prosecution.

The Supreme Federal Court reconvened Wednesday but made no decision on the case.

Rousseff’s government also was dealt a smaller blow when the country’s sports minister resigned a little more than four months before the start of the Summer Olympics.

George Hilton’s resignation came in an announcement late Wednesday. Ricardo Leyser, a senior official in the Sports Ministry, will be replace him on an interim basis.

The International Olympic Committee said it is following political developments inside the country but expressed optimism that the games will go on as planned.

“The Brazilian people will deliver a memorable Olympic Games full of their passion for sport for which they are world-renowned,” an IOC statement said. “We are very confident that Brazil will offer to the world excellent Olympic Games of which the whole country can be proud.”

The ongoing crisis has divided Brazilians, bringing huge numbers of protesters onto the streets, both in support of and against the government. Pro-government demonstrations were planned Thursday across a number of Brazilian cities.

A ‘coup’

The latest episode in Brazil’s political upheaval began when federal police took Lula da Silva, known widely as “Lula,” in for questioning this month as part of a long-running corruption investigation.

Lula da Silva is one of dozens of leading Brazilian political and business figures caught up in a wide-ranging graft probe centered on state-run oil company Petrobras — an operation known as “Car Wash.”

A few days later, Rousseff — his handpicked successor and protege — named him chief of staff.

Rousseff said she wanted to bring Lula da Silva into her Cabinet to harness his expertise, but critics saw it as a ploy to shield him from prosecution. In Brazil, senior political figures can only be tried in the Supreme Federal Court, meaning any prosecution against the ex-president would effectively be delayed if he were chief of staff.

That appointment prompted massive street protests. A legal battle has ensued trying to block Lula da Silva’s appointment while efforts to impeach the President have gained momentum.

The country’s largest political party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, pulled out of Rousseff’s coalition government Tuesday, prompting the President to come out fighting.

“Impeachment without proof of a crime is what? It is a coup,” Rousseff said Wednesday. “There is no point pretending we are discussing a hypothetical impeachment. We are discussing a very concrete impeachment without crime.”

Political woes grow for Rousseff

But the deeply unpopular leader — whose approval ratings stand at around 10% — faces an even greater likelihood of being impeached since the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party’s defection, which has left her politically isolated.

The party’s decision for its members to resign their government posts means that Rousseff is unlikely to gather enough votes in the National Congress to avoid impeachment proceedings. The proceedings relate to allegations that she tried to hide a budget shortfall ahead of elections in 2014.

Chris Garman, head of country analysis and managing director at Eurasia Group — a company that analyzes political risk — said his firm estimated Rousseff’s likelihood of being impeached at 60% to 70%. He gave odds of 75% that she did not finish her term, including the possibility that the impeachment efforts would be defeated but new elections called.

Carlos Caicedo, senior analyst for Latin America at analysts IHS, put the likelihood of Rousseff being impeached at about 60%.

“By late December last year we thought that she was going to put this behind her,” he said.

But since the mass demonstrations against her presidency and the police’s questioning of Lula da Silva over the “Car Wash” affair, doing so now looks less likely.

“Those two things together, I think, gave the impetus to the main ally (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) to jump ship,” he said.

If impeachment proceedings move forward, they would essentially freeze Rousseff’s government for 180 days while the President fights the efforts.

During that time, a caretaker government would step in — most likely headed by Vice President Michel Temer, leader of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and the only party member who has not been ordered to step down.

All this uncertainty comes as Brazil grapples with its longest economic downturn since the 1930s. Caicedo said IHS expected the country’s economy to contract a further 4% this year.

Besides battling political troubles, the country is also ground zero for the Zika virus, which the World Health Organization says “is now spreading explosively.”

Brazil has had more than 900 confirmed cases of microcephaly — a neurological disorder in which babies are born with small heads — in infants born to women infected with Zika while pregnant.

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