News Analysis: Brazilian president still stuck in hot seat over corruption charges

Source: Xinhua| 2017-07-13 18:40:17|Editor: Lu Hui
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by Chris Dalby

BRASILIA, July 12 (Xinhua) -- The words of Sergio Zveiter must have come as a particularly bitter betrayal to Brazilian President Michel Temer. Here was one of his party's own deputies recommending that the Chamber of Deputies accept the corruption charges against Temer.

"We have evidence that is serious and sufficient to accept the reception of the accusation," said Zveiter, the rapporteur of the Chamber's Commission on Constitution, Justice and Citizenship (CCJ), in his report to the commission.

"We cannot be silenced. It is necessary to investigate the facts," he said.

Since the CCJ is made up of members of all parties in the Chamber, the government had hoped that it might be favorable to Temer.

However, polls by O Globo, a leading Brazilian newspaper, showed the CCJ leaning toward accepting the charges. On the same day as Zveiter presented his report, Temer's Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) made a last-minute change.

With a number of CCJ deputies having stated they intended to vote against Temer, the president's allies in the Chamber began switching members out.

For example, Lincoln Portela from the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), who was outspoken against Temer, was changed for Beto Mansur, a close Temer ally.

This was just one of at least 13 changes on the 66-member CCJ by Wednesday, which has swung the advantage back towards Temer. These changes have caused an uproar in the Chamber, with some deputies accusing others of abusing the political process to protect the president.

To calm matters down, Temer spoke out on Tuesday, vowing to respect any decision the Chamber takes. He also said he had done more for Brazil in one year than his predecessors in 20 years.

"I am talking of a government which has been victim of the natural challenges of democracy ... those who want to stop us carrying on are those who want to paralyze the country. But we will not allow them to do so," said Temer.

Marcus Melo, a political scientist at the Federal University of Pernambuco, is confident that Brazil's institutions will win out.

"I do not believe that Temer has an anti-corruption agenda but the supervision institutions have become very strong, there is no turning back. The sectors within the government have an interest in stopping Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), but they will not be successful," Melo told news magazine Epoca.

It is important to note that the CCJ's vote is a non-binding recommendation. Even if Temer wins there, a full vote of the Chamber will take place, with a two-thirds majority needed to approve the charges.

Another O Globo poll found 178 deputies against Temer, 78 in favor, 104 undecided and 152 who did not respond. However, the uproar from this last-minute manipulation in the CCJ could tilt more deputies toward approving the charges, according to analysts.

Anthony Pereira, director of the King's Brazil Institute at King's College London, said Temer might still survive this vote.

He suggested that Chamber deputies might save Temer to save themselves from further corruption charges.

"Some will be voting out of self-interest because they themselves are being investigated by Operation Car Wash's anti-corruption team," said Pereira, adding that doing so could anger their voters.

Temer has certainly not abandoned hope of staying in power.

He has lambasted Rodrigo Janot, the prosecutor-general, as being biased. He has derided the audio recording provided by Joesley Batista, head of meatpacking group JBS, one of Brazil's largest private companies, on which Temer can seemingly be heard approving bribes, as having been doctored.

However, leading political risk consultancy Eurasia Group estimated in late June that Temer had a 70 percent chance of staying in power.

"Temer still enjoys enough support in Congress to defend himself against the charges," a report by Eurasia Group said.

"For most lawmakers, while there are now fewer incentives to openly support the Temer government, there are even fewer incentives to remove Temer from his seat," it said.

But Temer is not relying on style over substance. He is counting on his accomplishments in power to help protect him.

One of his main arguments has been that his government has led Brazil out of recession and needs more time to finish the job. This is certainly true. After two years of economic contraction, Brazil grew by 1 percent in the first quarter of 2017.

Temer has elevated budget cuts into an art form, albeit a highly controversial one. He capped the federal budget to only grow according to interest rates for 20 years, and slashed funding across the board, including in areas such as the sciences and protection of indigenous peoples.

For Frederic Puglie, a Latin American correspondent for the Washington Times, "the economic picture is no longer one of unrelieved gloom. Inflation has fallen below government targets, and a grinding two-year recession came to an end when the Brazilian economy eked out a small gain in the first quarter of 2017."

Temer's financial cuts have helped turn around immediate macroeconomic results but the full effect of these cuts on the economy are yet to be fully measured.

However, even this momentum has stalled for Temer. His labor reform, one of his key policies, was frozen in Congress for a long time before being passed on Wednesday. A war of words broke out between Temer and Chamber Speaker Rodrigo Maia over changes to the labor law.

"The lower house will not accept any change to the law. Any (presidential decree) will not be recognized by the House," Maia tweeted.

While this was targeted at a single law, it was also a sign that Maia may be growing increasingly tired of this political chaos. On Tuesday, Maia, who will take over as president if Temer is ousted, called for a quick vote on the charges.

With more charges set to be filed against Temer by Janot, he may soon find himself running out of allies and out of options.