How Brazil’s Michel Temer is clinging on to power
IN MAY O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper, reported that Michel Temer, Brazil’s president, had been caught on tape at his official residence discussing bribes. The conversation, secretly recorded by Joesley Batista, a former chairman of JBS, a meat-packing firm, prompted investigators to launch a sting operation in which Mr Batista’s envoy was filmed handing a briefcase filled with 500,000 reais ($159,000) to Mr Temer’s associate. Prosecutors allege the cash was meant for the president. Mr Temer denies that. But on June 26th Rodrigo Janot, Brazil’s chief prosecutor, charged him with corruption. More than a month later, however, Mr Temer remains in office. How has he survived?
The president is one of a string of politicians to be targeted by Operation Lava Jato (“car wash”), a corruption investigation which has rocked Brazil’s establishment since it began three-and-a-half years ago. The scope of the operation has spread far beyond its initial focus on Petrobras, the state-controlled oil firm. Prosecutors are now investigating some of the country’s most prominent businessmen and politicians. Using “preventive detention” and plea bargaining, they have extracted confessions and evidence that have secured more than a hundred convictions. Neither power nor popularity provide protection: on July 12th Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president, was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison for corruption. (He remains free pending an appeal.)
Mr Temer’s position is shaky. His popularity has plunged since May; he now has an approval rating of just 5%. But it is the congress, not the public, which decides his fate: under the country’s constitution, the supreme court requires the approval of two-thirds of deputies in the lower house to initiate a trial. Following his indictment Mr Temer spent weeks persuading reluctant legislators to support him. He met over 160 congressmen and freed up more than $1bn for legislators’ home districts, according to Contas Abertas, a watchdog. When the matter was put to a vote on August 2nd, congress blocked the referral of the case to the supreme court by a large margin.
The result was a personal victory for Mr Temer, but it may not be enough to get his legislative agenda back on track. His unpopularity makes it even harder to enact the economic reforms which are vital to stabilise the country’s public finances and encourage growth. The task may soon get even harder: Mr Janot is expected to bring two more indictments against the president in the coming weeks, each of which may require a similar vote in the lower house. With elections due in October 2018, deputies running for re-election will be increasingly reluctant to offer their support. A poll published in late July found that four-fifths of Brazilians want their president to face trial. Mr Temer will probably still complete his term of office. But he faces a difficult few weeks ahead.