A congressional committee on Monday recommended impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, setting the stage for a crucial vote in the lower house to decide whether she should face trial.
The committee voted 38 to 27 in favour of Rousseff's ouster. Both sides yelled slogans and waved placards as the vote was completed after hours of bad-tempered debate that often descended into shouting matches, reflecting Brazil's increasingly bitter divisions.
The decision was non-binding. However, it was symbolically important as a preview of the decisive battle in the full lower chamber expected on Sunday or the following Monday.
"It was a victory for the Brazilian people," said opposition deputy Jovair Arantes, predicting that the result would carry with "strong" pro-impeachment momentum into the full chamber's vote.
In the Chamber of Deputies, a two-thirds majority would send Rousseff's case to the Senate, which would then have the power to put her on trial and ultimately drive her from office. Anything less would torpedo the procedure.
Rousseff, accused of fiddling accounts to mask the dire state of the government budget during her 2014 re-election, is fighting desperately to secure enough anti-impeachment votes or persuade deputies to abstain.
The latest survey of the 513 deputies in the lower house by Estadao daily on Monday showed 298 in favour, still short of the 342 needed to carry the motion. The count showed 119 opposing impeachment, with 172 required to impose a defeat.
That left the result in the hands of the 96 deputies still undecided or not stating a position.
Pro-government deputy Silvio Costa said he was confident. "The opposition is very arrogant" after Monday's committee victory, he said.
Passions run high
With Latin America's biggest country gripped by recession, political paralysis and a vast corruption scandal, passions on both sides are intense.
A barricade was erected along the Esplanade of Ministries in the capital Brasilia to separate opposing protesters that police expect could number as many as 300,000 during the lower house vote.
More than 4,000 police and firefighters will be on duty, G1 news site reported, and security on Monday was stepped up at Congress, with heavy restrictions on access to the building.
If the case is taken up by the Senate after being confirmed by the lower house, Rousseff would have to step down for up to 180 days while a trial is held. Her vice president, Michel Temer, who has gone over to the opposition, would take the reins.
Temer would also remain president if a two-thirds majority in the Senate votes to depose Rousseff.
Some in the opposition have declared Rousseff politically dead ever since Temer's PMDB party, the largest in Brazil, quit her ruling coalition and joined the pro-impeachment ranks last month.
However, Rousseff, who was tortured under Brazil's military dictatorship, has fought back, helped by ally and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is overseeing frantic negotiations to build an impeachment-proof coalition.
Temer not popular
Rousseff has rock-bottom popularity ratings but as the moment of truth approaches, it has emerged that Brazilians are not much keener on her would-be replacement Temer.
A poll by the respected Datafolha institute on Saturday showed that 61 per cent of Brazilians support impeachment, down from 68 per cent in mid-March.
However, 58 per cent also said they would like to see Temer impeached.
Controversy erupted Monday with the release - said by Temer's office to have been accidental - of a recording in which he practices the speech he'd give if he took over from Rousseff.
Temer adopts a presidential tone, calling for "unification of the country".
Rousseff's Workers' Party called the premature speech evidence of "a brazen coup plot".
Several factors could still turn events on their head in this week's countdown to the lower house vote.
One is the Operation Car Wash probe that has revealed a giant corruption network based around state oil company Petrobras.
A Who's Who of Brazilian executives and high-ranking politicians, including many linked closely to Rousseff and Lula, have been prosecuted or investigated. Lula himself has been charged with money laundering.
The government says that the probe has become a political tool to boost the impeachment drive and Rousseff loyalists fear explosive new revelations before the vote.
Another wild card is Lula. An attempt to name him to the government was blocked in the Supreme Court after accusations that he and Rousseff were conspiring to win him ministerial immunity from the Car Wash prosecutors.
The Supreme Court is due to rule in the near future on whether he can formally enter government and the decision would be sure to make waves - as would new charges or legal action.