Brazil’s president weakened despite winning corruption vote

Michel Temer saved from possible supreme court trial that would have ended term

Brazil's President Michel Temer has been left counting the cost of his successful effort to see off a bid to remove him from office on corruption charges.

On Wednesday night the lower house of Congress rejected by 263 votes to 227 a request from the country’s chief federal prosecutor to suspend him from office and send him before the supreme court for trial in a bribery scandal.

The victory means the case is now shelved until after Mr Temer relinquishes his mandate, which is scheduled to end on January 1st, 2019. He was charged with “passive corruption” after police filmed a close aide receiving a suitcase containing 500,000 reais (€135,000) in cash that prosecutors say was part of a larger bribe from a billionaire.

But Wednesday’s victory came with a hefty political and financial price tag that leaves the president weakened even as prosecutors reportedly prepare new charges of obstruction of justice against him.

In the run-up to the vote Mr Temer showered deputies with funds for their pet projects and state roles for their allies in an effort to shore up his support. Even as Wednesday’s session was already under way, one of his ministers was seen in the chamber negotiating with deputies yet to declare their vote.

“This victory came at the cost of opening the treasury’s coffers to buy deputies,” says Sylvio Costa, director of Congress in Focus, an independent website that monitors the legislature.

The final cost of this glut of spending promises is calculated to be 13.2 billion reais (€3.5 billion) and comes at a moment when the government struggles to contain a huge budget deficit that has forced it to slash infrastructure spending and hike taxes.

Coalition split

Even then 90 deputies from parties in Mr Temer’s own coalition voted for his suspension. His main coalition ally, the Social Democratic party, was split down the middle and, with the president’s approval rating in single figures, it is locked in a bitter internal debate about whether to give up the four ministries it occupies and abandon the administration.

The 263 votes in favour of the president was also less than the 300 his aides had forecast and is significantly short of the 308 votes needed to pass a controversial constitutional amendment to reform the country’s creaking pension system, a key condition of continuing business support for Mr Temer despite his corruption woes.

“Temer ends one chapter with a victory but this isn’t the end of the game. This win doesn’t guarantee stability,” says Mr Costa.

As a sign of further potential problems to come, even as the lower chamber was debating Mr Temer's fate, chief federal prosecutor Rodrigo Janot was asking the supreme court to include him and two of his ministers in an ongoing corruption investigation unrelated to the case involving the suitcase of cash that police filmed being handed over.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America