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Facing impeachment, Brazil’s president has alienated many allies

BRASILIA — As Dilma Rousseff wages a last-ditch battle to save her presidency, she has accused her rivals in Congress of creating turmoil, saying they are orchestrating a coup d’etat.

More than two-thirds of Brazil’s lower house voted last month to approve an impeachment measure on charges that she illegally borrowed from state banks to plug budget holes. She is not accused of stealing for her own personal enrichment.

Many experts say the next step, a trial in the Senate that could begin in the coming weeks, would probably end in her removal.

“I will struggle with all my might until the coup-mongers are defeated,” Rousseff said in an interview.

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Many political analysts say Rousseff’s slow-motion downfall can also be tied to an autocratic persona and a go-it-alone work style that has driven away scores of political allies, former staff members, and Cabinet ministers, many of whom have endured searing episodes of public humiliation.

“She’s alienated so many politicians and squandered the goodwill of so many people, in part because of her terrible political skills but also because of her arrogance,” said Edson Sardinha, editor of Congresso em Foco, a magazine that focuses on government corruption. “In her hour of need, very few people are willing to run to her defense.”

The upheaval goes far beyond Rousseff’s leadership style. Brazil is enduring its worst economic crisis in decades, with millions of people falling out of the middle class into poverty. Inflaming rage of the working class, political elites of every stripe have engorged themselves in a multibillion-dollar graft scheme engulfing the national oil company.

Rousseff, who has been politically battered by the scandal, said she was the victim of a naked power grab by rivals and sexist assumptions on how a woman should lead. She also said she was a convenient scapegoat for something she cannot control: the global plunge in commodity prices that has sent the economy into a tailspin.

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But her vow to bring millions of Brazilians into the streets in her defense has produced little popular support. Siding with her opponents are scores of onetime allies — including five former ministers in her administration, the nation’s vice president, and six justices on the Supreme Court who were appointed by Rousseff or her most powerful defender, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The disaffected figures include Antonio Patriota, a former foreign minister, who told associates that he could no longer bear Rousseff’s scoldings, and Guido Mantega, a finance minister who was stunned to learn of his dismissal from an interview that the president gave to a television reporter.

In more than five years in office, Rousseff has largely refused to meet with members of Congress, both opponents and allies, a decision that helped erode the majority support she once enjoyed in the lower house.

The aggrieved include Eduardo Suplicy, a former senator and one of the most beloved figures in Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, who said that she had turned down multiple requests for a meeting.

“In politics, either you talk or you die,” said Alfredo Nascimento, a former transportation minister who said he was forced by the president to resign after he was wrongly accused of corruption. Nascimento was later exonerated, but by then it was too late. In April, he voted for her impeachment.

“I can’t support a president who is incapable of governing,” he said.

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Within the vast bureaucracy that inhabits Brasilia, the capital, most everyone can recount stories about Rousseff’s intolerance for dissent and her short fuse. The anecdotes include the time she smashed an office computer in a pique of anger, her refusal to meet with indigenous leaders or gay rights activists, and the castigation of aides for the smallest of infractions.

She is also finding little sympathy from the Brazilian news media, which has long viewed her as cold and condescending — a marked contrast to the charismatic, backslapping approach of da Silva.

Some agree that Rousseff is being judged by a double standard that has unfairly tarnished powerful women around the world. Would she be considered so obstinate and uncooperative if she were a man? Or would she simply be called a strong, decisive leader?

“The president is enduring all the stereotypes and prejudices of Brazil’s highly patriarchal and oligarchic society,” said Rosana Schwartz, a historian and sociologist at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo. “I’ve even heard people say, ‘We will never again vote for a woman.’”