Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazil’s President Michel Temer in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 18 2017. The banner reads:
Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazil’s President Michel Temer in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 18 2017. The banner reads: "Out Temer." Picture: REUTERS

Brasilia — Brazil’s Michel Temer hoped to save his presidency on Friday 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 his defence minister, Raul Jungmann, and military commanders at the presidential complex.

The agenda appeared to be designed to underline the centre-right president’s insistence on maintaining authority.

On Thursday, Temer emphatically refused to step down after the Supreme Court authorised an investigation 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 that ended in clashes with riot police.

More anti-Temer protests were planned this weekend.

Temer’s defiance put the ball in congress’s court.

The Supreme Court, which deals with sitting politicians, rarely moves quickly on investigations 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 on 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.

About two-thirds of legislators have had brushes with the law at some point. And a third of the senate is currently being investigated in the "Operation Car Wash" investigation that has uncovered massive bribery and embezzlement in Brazil’s elite — with Temer’s investigation 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 on 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 does not talk to prosecutors himself.

But in his statement on 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 was 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 on Friday.

The Sao Paulo stock market reacted in panic on Thursday to the spectre of Brazil losing its second president in just more than 12 months, with trading suspended briefly after the Bovespa index crashed more than 10%.

AFP

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