Embattled Brazilian President Survives Corruption Charge — For Now

August 3, 2017

As the legislative session opened Wednesday in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, opposition politicians had filled the room with their shouts for the ouster of embattled President Michel Temer. Roughly 30 lawmakers crowded in the center bearing signs in Portuguese that announced in bold letters: “Out with Temer!”

By the end of that session, though, Temer’s hold on power had survived to see another day: After hours of legislative wrangling and delays, lawmakers in the country’s lower chamber of Congress failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to suspend Temer and allow him to stand trial for accepting bribes.

As a sitting president — the first in Brazil’s history to be charged while in office — Temer cannot be tried by the country’s Supreme Federal Tribunal without the elected deputies agreeing to suspend him for 180 days. Now, without that consent, the corruption charge brought against him last month must wait until his term ends at the close of 2018.

Buoyed by allies in the chamber where he long served as presiding officer, Temer has so far managed to elude the grasp of prosecutors, who allege he arranged to receive more than $11 million in bribes from food-packing giant JBS. That includes the $150,000 his former aide had in a brief case when arrested by law enforcement.

The president also appears to have been secretly recorded approving hush money to Eduardo Cunho, a former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies who is now in prison serving a 15-year sentence for corruption.

Temer, for his part, maintains that the indictment is fiction, saying the allegations amount to little more than a “soap opera plot.”

But he is not the only high-profile figure in Brazil to be swept up in the yearslong corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash. The probe has already snared Cunho, construction firm CEO Marcelo Odebrecht and even another president: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the popular former president who left office about six years ago, was convicted of corruption charges and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison last month.

Lula will remain free as long as his appeal receives a hearing, however.

Temer took power last year after his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for illegally handling the country’s budget. But he remains deeply unpopular with Brazilian voters, hovering around 5 percent approval as he pushes forward on a widely disliked campaign to roll back labor laws.

“I think there’s a very high degree of cynicism about their entire political class,” NPR’s Philip Reeves told Morning Edition. “One politician and one executive after another has been exposed as being involved in what is basically of the massive system, in which politicians get paid big bribes to do favors for big business and big business manages to maintain its position in the marketplace by getting the legislation it wants.”

And prosecutors are hoping this popular dissatisfaction will ultimately lead to Temer’s suspension. For this is likely not the final charge — or vote by lawmakers — he will face.

Many people expect that prosecutors plan to stagger their indictments so lawmakers have to vote on each one, in the hopes that some lawmakers eventually back off casting several potentially unpopular votes in an election year.

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