BRASILIA: Brazil’s Michel Temer hoped to save his presidency yesterday by persuading the corruption-riddled Congress to back him, despite growing calls for his head in the country’s explosive new graft scandal. His office said he would start the day by meeting with his defense minister, Raul Jungmann, and military commanders at the presidential complex.
The agenda appeared to be designed to underline the center-right president’s insistence on maintaining authority. On Thursday, Temer emphatically refused to step down after the Supreme Court authorized a probe against him. He is accused of having given his blessing to payments meant to keep the former speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, from spilling secrets while he is in prison for taking millions of dollars in bribes.
The hush money allegations left Temer teetering barely a year after he took power in controversial circumstances, replacing his impeached predecessor, leftist president Dilma Rousseff. He now faces eight impeachment demands filed in Congress and a battle to maintain his ruling coalition. There were protests by several thousand people in Rio de Janeiro and the capital Brasilia which ended in clashes with riot police. More anti-Temer protests were planned this weekend.
Reliance on corrupt Congress
Temer’s defiance put the ball in Congress’ court. The Supreme Court, which deals with sitting politicians, rarely moves quickly on probes and suspects often manage to string out their cases. That leaves impeachment proceedings as the most likely avenue to remove Temer from power, just like a year ago when Rousseff was stripped of her office and Temer, her vice president, automatically got the top job. But for that to happen, Temer’s powerful ruling coalition in Congress would have to turn on him.
“That’s why today the main question is to know whether the parties that form the government’s base will leave,” said Thomaz Pereira, constitutional law professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio. The culture minister, Roberto Freire, resigned Thursday and Brazil’s media was rife with reports of other ministers threatening to exit. Temer will try to stem the flow, especially with his PMDB party’s main partners, the PSDB.
Ironically, the legislature that now holds Temer’s fate in its hands is itself riddled with corruption scandals. Some two thirds of lawmakers have had brushes with the law at some point. And a third of the Senate is currently being probed in the “Operation Car Wash” investigation that has uncovered massive bribery and embezzlement in Brazil’s elite-with Temer’s probe being just the latest offshoot.
The scandal started with the revelation in O Globo newspaper on Wednesday that Temer had been secretly recorded while talking to Joesley Batista, an executive from the meatpacking giant JBS, on March 7. On the tape, which was finally made public Thursday, Batista told Temer that he was paying money every month to Cunha “to keep things under control.”Temer replied: “You need to keep doing that, OK?” The conversation, which was provided to prosecutors as part of a plea bargain with Batista, is now in evidence with the Supreme Court.
It has been interpreted as referring to bribes given to Cunha to make sure that he doesn’t talk to prosecutors himself. But in his statement Thursday, Temer angrily responded: “I never bought anyone’s silence.” He also told the nation that his work to push unpopular austerity reforms through Congress was just starting to show positive results. Temer highlighted signs this week that Brazil’s two-year recession is coming to an end and claimed that “optimism was returning.”
Now “those efforts may come to nothing,” he warned. Investors, who have been betting on Temer achieving his makeover of the battered economy, will be watching for more mayhem on the markets yesterday. The Sao Paulo stock market reacted in panic Thursday to the specter of Brazil losing its second president in just over 12 months, with trading suspended briefly after the Bovespa index crashed more than 10 percent. – AFP