Brazil’s newly minted president already under siege

Michel Temer sinking under weight of Petrobras graft scandal and rage over austerity

Just months after it fired one president, Brazil ends 2016 contemplating whether her replacement is set to be given his own marching orders some time next year.

Sold as the man to restore calm after the political and economic chaos caused by the drawn-out impeachment of Dilma Rousseff – concluded in August – Michel Temer has instead seen talk about whether he can survive long in the job due to his failure to reach his own political base.

His young administration heads into the summer recess under siege on various fronts. The economy appears immune to his efforts to revive it and is still shrinking. Congress is engaged in open warfare with the supreme court while Temer personally is being dragged closer to the centre of a major corruption inquiry.

The biggest threat to his presidency remains the sprawling graft probe the into state oil giant Petrobras that did so much to undermine Rousseff. Federal prosecutors are currently signing 77 plea-bargain agreements with executives from Odebrecht, Petrobras's biggest contractor, in which they promise to name hundreds of senior politicians they bribed over decades.


President’s bagman

In just one of these, leaked to the media, Temer is mentioned 43 times. He denies any wrongdoing but this week José Yunes, a special adviser and friend since law school, resigned after one Odebrecht executive named him as Temer’s bagman, saying huge sums were delivered in cash to Yunes’s law practice. He became the seventh senior member of the Temer administration forced out in just seven months.

The threat of renewed public fury and political paralysis as a result of further revelations from Odebrecht executives prompted one senior ally to speculate whether the president might resign. "At this hour, we cannot be afraid of anticipating the electoral process," said Ronaldo Caiado, senate leader of the Democrats, one of the parties that makes up the administration. "He should have the sensibility that President Dilma lacked."

The president's advisers dismissed Caiado's remarks but possible replacements for Temer are already being openly discussed in the media. One of those most mentioned, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, had to formally rule himself out this week, saying the speculation was only making the crisis gripping the country worse.

This week the head of Brazil’s military also dismissed calls for the army to take over, describing civilian demands for it to intervene as “crazy”.

Battle with supreme court

The rising panic gripping Brazil’s political class over what the Odebrecht executives’ testimony will reveal about their criminality has sparked a war between the congress and the supreme court.

Congressional leaders were furious this week when a court justice told them to redo a vote on an anti-corruption petition laid before congress after it gathered up 2.5 million signatures.

Congress disfigured the popular proposal, altering the original text to instead rein in the powers of prosecutors. Supreme court judge Luiz Fux said the congress had to vote on the text of the original proposal rather than the revised version that ran counter to the petition's original intent, leading to accusations that judges were straying into the realm of politics and undermining the separation of powers.

It followed a furious row earlier this month between the court and Renan Calheiros, the president of the senate, over his position in light of his being sent down for trial on corruption charges. The crisis ended only when the court decided to leave Calheiros in charge of the upper chamber but removed from the line of presidential succession because of his impending corruption trial.

This compromise saved Temer’s austerity package which Calheiros shepherded through the senate on Tuesday. His flagship proposal to revive investor confidence, it constitutionally caps all future federal spending in areas such as health and education at the rate of inflation for the next 20 years.

That provoked fury and rioting in several cities, already the stage of almost daily protests from public workers who are not being paid by bankrupt state governments. But the measure is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the contracting economy while causing the president’s rejection rating in polls to spike to levels dangerously close to those that did for his predecessor.

"The best Temer can really hope for now is just to muddle through until his term ends in 2018," says David Fleischer, professor of politics at the University of Brasília. "But that is assuming nothing worse happens next year and in Brazilian politics you never know what is going to happen tomorrow."