By Lisandra Paraguassu
BRASILIA (Reuters) - President Dilma Rousseff on Friday suffered two setbacks to her fight against impeachment, as a minister from her main coalition ally resigned and the Supreme Court quashed appeals from supporters seeking to stop the impeachment process.
Though not momentous enough to reverse the likelihood that Rousseff can stop impeachment proceedings launched against her in Congress on Wednesday, the setbacks show that the Supreme Court and even coalition partners are willing to let the process play out and strategizing for what may follow.
Aviation Minister Eliseu Padilha, an ally of Vice President Michel Temer and part of the fractious party that is Rousseff's main coalition partner, on Friday submitted his resignation, according to two people familiar with the decision from within the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB.
Meanwhile, Brazil's Supreme Court turned back appeals from Rousseff's allies to block the impeachment proceedings.
The process, launched against Rousseff by opposition politicians for accounting tricks that a congressional auditor said broke public finance laws, is expected to mean at least six months of political wrangling at a time when the government is struggling with legislative gridlock, the deepest recession in three decades and a historic corruption scandal.
An aviation ministry spokesman declined comment and Rousseff's office had no immediate reaction to Padilha's resignation, but politicians and analysts saw a deliberate desire by the center-right PMDB, a restive ally even at the best of times, to put further distance between itself and the leftist president.
Even before the impeachment proceedings began, many within the party argued that the PMDB should be positioning itself to assume the government, with Temer at the helm, if Rousseff is forced to leave office.
Padilha's departure "is a clear indication that Rousseff will fight this battle alone," said Gabriel Petrus, a political analyst at Barral M Jorge, a consultancy in Brasilia. "It is also a good indication of the real interest that Temer has in this process: standing as Rousseff's successor."
Temer, for his part, has lain low since the proceedings began. In a brief comment published in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper on Friday, he said he hoped the proceedings would "pacify" Brazil's bitter political landscape.
At the Supreme Court, Justices Celso de Mello and Gilmar Mendes rejected two appeals from lawmakers in the ruling coalition, including one filed by congressmen from Rousseff's Workers' Party.
A third appeal, filed by the Brazilian Communist Party (PCdoB), was still awaiting a decision, a court spokeswoman said.
The opposition has said Rousseff broke budget laws to safeguard economic stimulus during her re-election campaign last year. The president in office since 2011, denies any wrongdoing.
Even though it may not succeed, the impeachment drive adds another obstacle for a government struggling for congressional approval of policies, including spending cuts and a new financial tax, considered crucial to rebalancing public finances and helping restore economic growth.
This week, data showed that Brazil's economy contracted in the third quarter by 4.5 percent from a year earlier. The country's economic and political woes have been exacerbated by a kickback scandal at state-owned companies that has ensnared dozens of political and corporate leaders.
Rousseff is expected to narrowly survive the proceedings because her party and allies, for now, appear to control enough seats to defeat those who support impeachment.
The government estimated conservatively that it already had firm support from 140 lawmakers in the lower house - shy of the 172 votes needed to block the process - and was seeking more, an aide to Rousseff said.
Newspaper O Globo, based on estimates from party leaders, said on Friday Rousseff could have up to 258 lawmakers in her favor if the vote were held today.
Rousseff wants to speed up a vote on impeachment in the lower house, according to her chief of staff, who favors calling Congress back in the summer recess in January to hold a vote.
An early vote - before Brazilians get back from their summer holiday - would favor Rousseff since the pro-impeachment campaign is only expected to gather support on the streets once Carnival is over in February.
(Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca and Anthony Boadle. Writing by Paulo Prada and Silvio Cascione; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)