RIO DE JANEIRO – Fighting to save his job, Brazilian President Michel Temer has received a huge boost from a decision by the country's top electoral court to reject allegations of illegal campaign finance and keep him in office.
The Superior Electoral Tribunal's 4-3 vote late Friday gave Temer a lifeline amid widespread calls that he resign in the face of a corruption scandal.
Last month, a recording emerged that apparently captured Temer endorsing hush money to ex-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a former Temer ally serving 15 years in prison for corruption and money laundering. Soon after, details of another bombshell emerged: that Temer was being investigated for taking bribes.
Temer has denied wrongdoing and vowed to stay in office.
However, the fallout from the scandals was so great that many observers expected that the electoral court judges would be swayed to remove Temer from office over unrelated campaign finance allegations. While in theory Brazilian justices are impartial, in reality they are often highly political. Indeed, two of judges who voted in Temer's favor were his appointees.
"While Temer is hard for many people to digest, he will likely remain in office," said Alexandre Barros, a political risk consultant with the Brasilia-based firm Early Warning. "Instability is bad for everybody. So many will say at this point, 'If we have to pay the price for sticking with Temer, let's do it.'"
While Temer has crossed a huge hurdle to staying in power, he is still facing threats on many fronts. The attorney general is considering pressing charges against him for allegedly receiving bribes, over the audio recording and for allegedly trying to obstruct a colossal investigation into billions of dollars in inflated contracts and kickbacks to politicians. Temer's approval rating is hovering around 9 percent and he has a tenuous hold on his ruling coalition.
The campaign finance case was filed shortly after the 2014 presidential election by one of the losing parties. It alleged that the ticket of President Dilma Rousseff and running mate Temer, then the vice presidential candidate, gained an unfair advantage through illegal campaign contributions. Temer took over the presidency last year after Rousseff was impeached and removed for illegally managing the federal budget.
The campaign finance allegations were bolstered in recent months by stunning testimony from plea bargains signed by current and former executives at the construction giant Odebrecht, a company at the center of a colossal investigation into billions of dollars in inflated contracts and kickbacks to politicians. The executives described tens of millions of dollars in bribes and illegal campaign contributions, including to the Rousseff-Temer ticket.
Over four days of deliberations, the judges argued about whether those plea bargains should be considered in their decision. They also clashed over the strength of the original evidence and whether punishments should be doled out when illegal campaign finance was widespread.
A guilty verdict would have annulled the 2014 victory, thus stripping Temer of the rest of his mandate. It could also have also made both Temer and Rousseff ineligible to take office for eight years. While Temer had vowed to appeal any conviction, it would have weakened his hand in a climate of corruption scandals and a public furious at politicians.
"Even the rocks know that the political environment is contaminated. Now is the time for the rescue," said Judge Luiz Fux, voting to remove Temer.
Napoleao Nunes Maia argued the court should not have an activist role.
"Electoral justice can't be used as a third round of elections without violating the electoral order," said Maia, adding that a lack of moderation would "risk annihilating the sovereign will of the people."
Claudio Couto, a political science professor at Fundacao Getulio Vargas, a Sao Paulo-based university and think tank, called the court decision "demoralizing" for ignoring evidence against Temer. Couto also said that more scandals are likely to hit the administration, which has lurched from one crisis to another over the last year.
"But for now, the trend seems to be a weak Temer administration going forward, with little chance of passing any meaningful measures," said Couto.
While Temer has survived another day, the future will be difficult.
His already very low popularity has plunged further amid the corruptions allegations. A Temer ally and former congressman, captured on video by federal police carrying a suitcase full of bribe money, was recently jailed — and any testimony he provides could further implicate Temer.
The main parties in Temer's coalition have stuck with him so far, but there are reports of worry in the ranks that being associated with his government could be detrimental to re-election campaigns next year.
Temer's strongest claim to stay in power is the argument that he can deliver major reforms to labor laws and the country's pension system. While deeply unpopular among Brazilians, many economists say they are necessary to help pull Latin America's largest nation from recession.
"Temer will argue, 'I'm the guy who is going to give the country the bitter remedy that will cure it," said Carlos Manhanelli, political marketing specialist and chairman of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants.
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