Another Presidential Crisis Throws Brazil Into Turmoil

Two back to back corruption accusations against President Michel Temer have brought the largest country in Latin America to a standstill.

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A recorded conversation between Temer and a Brazilian businessman personally implicates the president in corruption. On the tape, Temer approves the use of hush money to buy the silence of Eduardo Cunha. (Cunha was the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower legislative chamber, until last year when he was arrested on charges of corruption.)

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After the report had surfaced, demonstrators took to the streets to demand that President Temer leaves office. However, Temer has so far held steadfast, denying the allegations and refusing to step down.

In addition to the recording, court testimony released on May 19th accuses Temer of taking 15 million reais (US$4.6 million) in bribes from JBS, a Brazilian meat packing company which is already under investigation for bribery.

This latest crisis comes nearly a year after the Senate suspended then-President Dilma Rousseff and transferred presidential powers to Michel Temer.

Brazil’s Troubled Past

In 2014 Michel Temer ran as then-President Dilma Rousseff’s running mate. The pair won a narrow victory in the second round of voting.

Rousseff’s election victory was short lived. In 2015, inflation began to rise while the already sluggish economy fell into an economic depression. Another factor holding the economy back was allegations of widespread corruption and huge criminal investigation.

The corruption investigation called Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) had propelled Brazil into the international spotlight. The investigation revealed massive corruption and bribery surrounding the state-owned oil company, Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. Hundreds of politicians and business leaders in Brazil, including many members of both chambers of Brazil’s legislature, would eventually be accused or arrested.

Against this bleak backdrop, the political enemies of Rousseff and her Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) both in the legislature and her own administration moved to remove her from power. The charges brought against Rousseff were not corruption, which many of the legislators voting against here were accused of, but rather stemmed from accounting tricks that her administration used to fund social welfare programs.

In December 2015 the Chamber of Deputies, at the time led by Eduardo Cunha, brought articles of impeachment against President Rousseff. In August 2016 the Senate, which at the time was led by Renan Calheiros who is currently under investigation related to the Odebrecht corruption scandal, removed her from office and Vice-President Temer became the 37th President of Brazil.

Although Rousseff described her impeachment and removal as a coup, the business community and members of Brazil’s center-right were optimistic at the time that a pro-business Temer administration would boost the country’s flagging economy. However, by early 2017 the initial optimism had evaporated and Brazil began to enter into a new presidential crisis less than a year after Rousseff’s removal.

Going Forward

To say that President Temer’s hold on power is shaky is an understatement. A third of his cabinet is currently under investigation for corruption and on May 18 the Supreme Court ordered an investigation of the President himself.

While the ruling party in Brazil’s legislature has not yet called for his ouster, on May 19 a member of the opposition in the Chamber of Deputies presented articles of impeachment against Temer.

Given the magnitude of the recent corruption allegations against the president, it appears to be merely a matter of time before he must either resign or face impeachment. Should this occur, it will not necessarily calm the turmoil surrounding the office of the President.

Brazil has not had a vice president since Temer ascended to the presidency in August. Should he resign or be removed, the Brazilian Constitution gives the National Congress the authority to fill the vacancy for the remainder of Temer’s term:

If the vacancy occurs during the last two years of the President’s term of office, the National Congress shall hold elections for both offices thirty days after the last vacancy, as established by law.

Whomever the Congress elected to serve as president would have the unenviable task of keeping Brazil on track for the 2018 general elections when the people will choose their new president.

One clear front-runner for 2018 is former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula was president from 2003 to 2010 during an economic boom when Brazil was seen as a rising economic power. Should he once again become president, Brazilians may be in for a rude awakening. Just as Temer was not able to turn Brazil’s economy around, it is doubtful that Lula would be more successful. Furthermore, the investigation into Lula himself poses a problem. Although he would gain immunity as president, the idea that Brazil would be governed by another president that was suspected of corruption is worrying.

This latest crisis emphasizes that the status quo is unsustainable. Brazil requires a complete change of course, both politically and economically. It is clear that such a change will not occur so long as Michel Temer remains president.

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