Brazil’s Temer: Quiet bridge builder, crafty political operator
Dilma Rousseff’s replacement as Brazil’s leader faces a daunting challenge
Brazil’s vice president Michel Temer applauds Dila Rousseff during her inauguration as president in January 2015. Photograph: Marcelo Sayao/ EPA
The man poised to become Brazil’s new leader has spent decades in politics and is known for his quiet yet calculating demeanor, fine suits, and a penchant for poetry.
Vice president Michel Temer was set to take the helm of the world’s fifth-most populous nation on Thursday after Brazil’s senate voted to put President Dilma Rousseff on trial for breaking budgetary laws.
While Rousseff is known for her “in-your-face” style, those who have worked with Temer say he is serene and possesses a rare trait in Brazilian politics – the patience to listen to allies and adversaries alike.
The challenge before him is daunting. Brazil is mired in its worst recession since the 1930s and he will have to make rapid moves to restore confidence. Rousseff and her ruling Workers’ Party (PT) have branded Temer a traitor and say that impeachment amounts to a coup.
Temer bitterly broke with Rousseff five months ago, accusing her of sidelining him. He has already chosen several key ministers who are heavy hitters in Brazil’s political and business classes and will clearly take a more liberal economic approach than the leftist Rousseff.
He honed his craft over several years in Brazil’s bare-knuckle lower house of congress, where he was an ally to both centrist president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and leftist leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Temer (75) earned a reputation for remaining above the fray. He rarely raises his voice, is said not to curse and refrains from the wild gesticulation and theatrics his peers employ during debates.
“Temer is assertive, but not aggressive. He speaks, but not too much. He’s restrained. Yet he has shown he can negotiate with anyone, on the right or left,” said Eliane Cantanhede, a political commentator with the Estado de S Paulo newspaper and Globo TV who has covered the vice president for decades.
Supporters enthused that this would enable him to get things done.
“He builds political bridges and will be able to win the congressional support to carry out the reforms needed to revive our economy and political system,” said congress deputy Darcisio Perondi, a member of Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), who has known the vice president for two decades.
But there are some doubts even among those eager to see a change.
Though Brazil’s stock markets and currency rallied at the prospect of a business-friendly Temer government, some investors have voiced concern at his low-profile leadership style.
They worry he will not be assertive enough to control a politically chaotic moment, and that he will not be able to withstand the ferocious opposition the PT has vowed awaits what it considers to be an illegitimate government.
Temer, a constitutional scholar, has some unusual traits.
The father of five children is married to a former beauty pageant contestant 43 years his junior who has his name tattooed on her neck. Temer has also released a book of poetry titled “Anonymous Intimacy”.
Its terse verse was penned on aeroplane napkins while he travelled from the capital Brasilia to his base in São Paulo. It includes praise for the female form and oblique allusions to Brazil’s polarised politics.
He has a low-key demeanor but is not above splashes of vanity. Several years ago, he had a nose operation that corrected a deviated septum but also, he acknowledged, improved his looks.
If Rousseff is convicted in the Senate trial, Temer will remain in office until the next presidential election in 2018. But he has said he would not run in that election – unsurprising, considering a recent survey from polling group Datafolha showed just one per cent of those surveyed would vote for him.
For 15 years, he has led the PMDB, a regionally fragmented party with no consistent ideology, yet which holds more Congressional seats than any other.
Since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, the PMDB has mostly been content to let other parties hold the presidency while it positioned itself as the legislative power broker, winning pork barrel perks and control of ministries in return for support in Congress.
That has now come to an end and the PMDB plans to field its own presidential candidate in 2018. Temer’s supporters say his long political career working across the ideological spectrum makes him a strong transitional leader and will help set the PMDB up for a presidential win.
The son of Lebanese immigrants who arrived in Brazil in 1925, Temer was the youngest of eight children and began his political career in the 1960s as an aide to São Paulo state’s education secretary under governor Adhemar de Barros - one of the politicians who inspired the Brazilian saying: “He steals, but he gets things done.”
As vice president since Rousseff took office in 2011, Temer was mostly relegated to rallying support in Congress and ensuring his fractious party’s backing for her agenda.
But that deteriorated in the past year as Rousseff’s popularity plummeted to single digits in polls.
Temer put his relationship with Rousseff on ice in December, when he sent her a letter full of laments that dramatically opened with the Latin proverb “Verba volant, scripta manent” – “Words fly, writings remain.”
“This is a personal letter. It’s a rant I should have made long ago,” Temer wrote in the note that was dated December 7th and quickly became widely public.
He complained about being sidelined and taken for granted, of being used only to win congressional votes and to tackle crises, and about not being invited to a meeting with US vice president Joe Biden.
“Finally,” Temer’s 875-word break-up letter with Rousseff concluded, “I know, madam, that you do not trust me or the PMDB today, nor will you trust us tomorrow.”