President keeps a tenuous grasp on power in troubled Brazil

Michel Temer rides out corruption storm as lack of replacement plays in his favour

Brazilian President Michel Temer. Photograph: Evaristo Saevaristo Sa/AFP/Getty

Brazilian President Michel Temer. Photograph: Evaristo Saevaristo Sa/AFP/Getty

 

Considering the trouble he currently finds himself in, Michel Temer’s continued occupancy of Brazil’s presidential palace is something of a minor political miracle.

It is now 10 days since the latest in a growing list of corruption crises engulfed Temer’s administration, when a leading businessman directly implicated him in bribery and the obstruction of justice. And yet a week that saw the army deployed on the streets of Brasília after protesters attacked government buildings, setting fire to one ministry, ends with the president vowing to hang on.

Brazil has not stopped and will not stop,” he said in a video released on Thursday night in which he pledged to continue with his unpopular reforms to Brazil’s labour laws and pension system, which led to Wednesday’s violent protests in the capital.

Temer has played for time by questioning the veracity of the evidence against him

In a bid to ride out the political storm, Temer has played for time by questioning the veracity of the evidence against him. He has claimed a recording made by Joesley Batista, whose family company JBS is the world’s largest meat processor, of a conversation with Temer was doctored to implicate him in obstruction of justice. Technicians from the federal police say it could take a month to work out if that is the case.

But that still leaves open the larger question of why Temer was holding late-night meetings with a powerful business figure being investigated for corruption – and who, unbeknown to him, had already decided to work with federal prosecutors as part of a plea-bargain agreement – in his official residence. Or why he failed to officially register the visit or, apparently, report to police that Batista told him of his scheme to buy the silence of a jailed party colleague of the president.

Doubts about the tape also do nothing to explain how federal police came to film one of Temer’s aides accepting a briefcase with $500,000 Brazilian real (€135,000) in cash from one of Batista’s executives, which according to the businessman was the first instalment of a $15 million bribe for Temer.

“These revelations have left Temer weak and isolated,” says André Pereira César, a political analyst in Brasília. “That he has survived so far is in part because he can still call on the support of some of his political base. But it is also a reflection of the fact there is still no agreement among the country’s political elite about who to replace him with.”

Former vice-president

Temer, a former vice-president promoted to the top job following the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff last year, has no obvious successor in waiting. Should he resign or be forced out, Brazil’s congress would have to elect a replacement to serve out the remaining 18 months of Rousseff’s original mandate.

Several names have been floated in the past 10 days, including the current and former head of the supreme court and Temer’s own finance minister. But most have demurred if not actively ruled themselves out.

Protesters clash with police during a protest against labour and social security reforms and Michel Temer in Brasília. Photograph: Evaristo Saevaristo Sa/AFP/Getty
Protesters clash with police during a protest against labour and social security reforms and Michel Temer in Brasília. Photograph: Evaristo Saevaristo Sa/AFP/Getty

But the political class might soon have its hand forced. On Thursday, Brazil’s powerful bar association formally petitioned congress to impeach Temer based on the evidence provided against him by Batista. According to the petition, Temer “had acted in a manner incompatible with the dignity and decorum of his office”.

A more immediate risk to the president’s grip on office comes next week when the country’s electoral court is finally due to rule on whether to disqualify the Rousseff-Temer ticket which won 2014’s presidential election. Herman Benjamin, the judge in charge of the case, has argued in favour of cancelling its mandate on the grounds the winning campaign was illegally financed by companies that looted tens of millions of euro from the public coffers.

Although not part of the case against the ticket, Batista gave more weight to it by telling prosecutors he deposited up to $150 million (€135 million) in foreign bank accounts for Rousseff and her predecessor and mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to use as illegal campaign financing.

If the full electoral court votes with Benjamin, the head of the lower house of congress, the little-known Rodrigo Maia, would immediately take over as interim president and have 30 days to organise a vote in congress to select a replacement for Temer.

The winner of that contest would then become Brazil’s fourth president in little over a year of near-constant political turmoil that for all the claims in recent months shows no signs of abating.

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