Brazil's President Michel Temer. Picture: REUTERS
Brazil's President Michel Temer. Picture: REUTERS

Brasília — Brazilian legislators kicked off a raucous debate on Wednesday on whether to put scandal-plagued President Michel Temer on trial for corruption, just a year after his predecessor was booted from office.

Opposition legislators brandished placards mocking Temer’s low approval ratings and wheeled in a suitcase similar to one used by a Temer aide when he was caught carrying the equivalent of $150,000 cash in alleged bribe money.

"Out with Temer," they shouted.

Temer, a deeply unpopular veteran of the ruling centre-right PMDB party, is accused of taking bribes from a meat packing industry executive — part of a wider scandal sucking in major politicians of every stripe.

If two-thirds of deputies in the lower house of Congress accept the charge, Temer will be suspended for 180 days and face trial at the Supreme Court.

The upheaval comes only 12 months after Congress ejected Temer’s leftist predecessor Dilma Rousseff in an impeachment trial. Now the left, which also hopes to derail Temer’s business-friendly economic reforms after two crippling years of recession, smells blood.

"A thief is a thief and needs to be treated as a thief," Major Olimpio, a deputy with the leftist Solidariedade party, told the assembly.

But analysts believe Temer has enough support to stop a two-thirds majority, in which case the charge would be thrown out.

The president’s lawyer, Antonio Claudio Mariz de Oliveira, called the case "fiction". Temer himself was bullish, telling legislators at a dinner held on Tuesday to try to win their support that he was "the victim of banditry and that he needs to fight back", Globo newspaper reported.

The first question, however, is whether the vote will even take place. Many in the opposition have vowed not to show up, preventing the chamber from reaching the necessary quorum of two-thirds or 342 deputies.

Their hope is to postpone the vote and increase pressure on Temer, who has been lobbying energetically for it to go ahead so that he can put the issue behind him.

"Every day, new information comes in on other corruption cases involving the government," said Paulo Pimenta, from Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party.

Temer is the highest-profile target in the Operation Car Wash anti-graft probe, which has uncovered rampant bribery and embezzlement in big business and high politics. Expectations are that top prosecutor Rodrigo Janot could file a second criminal charge — for obstruction of justice — in the coming weeks.

In the current charge, Temer is alleged to have been the intended recipient of the cash being carried by a close aide in Sao Paulo. The money was allegedly part of millions of dollars of bribes to Temer from the JBS meat packing giant.

In a separate investigation, prosecutors cite a secretly recorded late-night meeting between Temer and one of JBS’s owners, Joesley Batista. In the recording, Temer allegedly is heard authorizing hush money payments to a onetime senior politician convicted of corruption, Eduardo Cunha.

Batista gave prosecutors the recording as part of his cooperation in a plea deal, one of the many that Car Wash investigators have used to build graft cases.

But Temer has proved a canny operator in Brazil’s toxic political landscape.

Rousseff claimed to have been the victim of a coup mounted by the right, including Temer, who was her vice president. Once impeachment proceedings began, she was swiftly pushed out.

Temer, however, has shored up his own teetering coalition with political patronage and support from business interests that back market reforms aimed at strengthening signs of a tepid economic recovery.

"Five major parties have already decided to back the president and that alone comes to 200 votes," said an aide.

House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, a Temer ally who would become interim president if a trial started, says he wants the vote to go ahead on time.

"Brazil needs clarity on this. You can’t play around with such a serious situation," he told journalists.


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