Brazil’s lower house of Congress will decide on Sunday whether to recommend impeaching President Dilma Rousseff on charges of manipulating budgetary accounts, in a vote that could hasten the end of 13 years of leftist Workers Party rule.
The political crisis, which comes amid Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s, has deeply divided the South American country and sparked a fight between Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer, who would take over if she is dismissed.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters, for and against, began to take the streets of major cities across the country in anticipation of the vote which starts at 2 p.m. (1700 GMT) and is expected to run into the evening.
Rousseff, who was seen out on her habitual morning cycle on Sunday, returned to her residence to lead last-minute deal-making talks along with her charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Party insiders said the tide was turning and that Rousseff and Lula had persuaded enough wavering lawmakers to vote in their favor or abstain.
“Our latest calculations are that we have the votes to block impeachment,” José Guimarães, the Workers Party leader in the lower house, told reporters inside Congress.
But surveys by leading newspapers continue to show the government lacks the one-third of votes or abstentions needed in the 513-seat lower house to avoid the president being sent for trial in the Senate.
Furthermore, opposition forces believe that once voting starts, the momentum will be with them to easily surpass the 342 votes needed to push forward with impeachment.
Pro- and anti-impeachment protesters gathered in various parts of the capital to make their way to the grassy esplanade in front of Congress. There a 2-metre (6.5-foot) high wall has been erected stretching for more than 1 km (0.6 of a mile) to separate both sides, a symbol of the stark political divide in one of the world’s most unequal societies.
Buses carrying some of the thousands of police being deployed in the capital Brasilia were arriving and officers getting into position. Further protests are expected in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Polls suggest more than 60 percent of Brazil’s 200 million people support impeaching Rousseff, whose inner circle has been tainted by a vast corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras (PETR4.SA).
The Workers Party, however, still musters strong support among millions of working class Brazilians, who credit its welfare programs with pulling their families out of poverty during the last decade.
In the car park of Brasilia’s soccer stadium, some of these supporters waved red flags and set off fire crackers, as they prepared to march on Congress.
“There won’t be a coup, there will be a fight,” the crowd shouted, referring to Rousseff’s view that the move to impeach her has no legal grounding and is a coup d’état.
The impeachment crisis has paralyzed activity in Brasilia, just four months before the country is due to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and as it seeks to battle an epidemic of the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in newborns.
While Rousseff herself has not been personally charged with corruption, many of the lawmakers who will decide her fate on Sunday have.
Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog group in Brasilia, says more than 300 of the legislators who will vote on Sunday – well over half the chamber – are under investigation for corruption, fraud or electoral crimes.
If Rousseff loses Sunday’s vote, the Senate must decide whether there are legal grounds to hear the case against her, a decision expected in early May.
Should it agree to do so, Rousseff would be suspended from office and Temer would automatically take over.
Financial markets in Brazil have rallied strongly on hopes that Rousseff’s dismissal would usher in a more business-friendly Temer administration. Sources close to the vice president told Reuters he was considering a senior executive at Goldman Sachs in Brazil for a top economic post.
Whoever governs the country in coming months will inherit a toxic political environment, a divided Congress, rising unemployment and an expected contraction of four percent this year in the world’s ninth largest economy.