By Agence France-Presse
Brazil’s election court voted Friday against stripping President Michel Temer of his office in a major boost to his chances of beating a gathering corruption scandal.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) — considering charges that Temer’s election in 2014 should be annulled because of the role of corruption money — voted 4-3 to acquit the embattled center-right president.
The verdict spared recession-ravaged Brazil its second leadership crisis in 14 months, following the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff last year and her replacement by her then-vice president Temer.
The lead judge on the TSE case, Justice Herman Benjamin, headed the push to sack Temer, saying that systemic undeclared donations and bribes from big Brazilian corporations fatally undermined the 2014 Rousseff-Temer election in Latin America’s biggest country.
“This is enough to invalidate the mandate,” he said.
But in a marathon process during which each of the seven judges voted one by one, giving detailed arguments, the tide turned. Finally, the TSE’s president Gilmar Mendes cast the deciding vote with a call for cool heads and stability at a time of national turmoil.
“You don’t switch the president of the republic every hour,” he said. “There are serious proven facts but not enough to annul the mandate.”
Clearly feeling strengthened, Temer fired a dramatic shot in a separate obstruction of justice case that he faces by refusing a demand by prosecutors to provide a written deposition by Friday. He demanded that the probe against him be shut down instead.
Temer’s legal problems — on top of corruption probes opened against a third of his cabinet and many of his congressional allies — come just as Brazil is struggling to exit its worst recession in history.
If the TSE had removed Temer, Congress would have had to pick a new interim president to serve the rest of his term to the end of 2018.
‘Diving into the mud’
Temer greeted the verdict as “a sign that the national institutions continue to guarantee the smooth functioning of Brazilian democracy,” his spokesman said afterward.
However, the decision caused dismay among those pushing for Brazil to face up to its corruption problem.
“No democracy can come out unharmed from the institutional free-for-all that Brazil is going through,” said Rio State University political scientist Mauricio Santoro, slamming “the degradation of the rules and of public life.
“The TSE’s decision sends the judiciary diving into the same mud as the other branches.”
Attention will now turn to Temer’s battle against the parallel case in which he is accused of obstruction of justice and corruption.
Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot alleges that Temer agreed to payments of hush money to former lower house of Congress speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is in prison for corruption.
Janot had ordered Temer to answer 82 questions in writing by late Friday as part of his building of the case. Rather than meet the deadline, Temer’s lawyers branded the probe a “comedy,” an “inquisition” and “arrogant.”
Temer says the central piece of evidence in Janot’s probe — a secretly made audio recording of a conversation he had with a meatpacking industry tycoon — was doctored.
But analysts say Janot could soon up the ante by moving from the current investigation to requesting formal charges.
Under the constitution, the lower house would have to approve the charges by a two-thirds majority before a trial could start in the Supreme Court.
That approval process in Congress could be lengthy and Temer is working daily to maintain enough support among legislators to defeat any eventual charges.
If he goes, the speaker of the lower house would take over for 30 days during which legislators would choose a new interim president to serve through 2018.
The lack of a clear consensus figure is thought to be the major reason why allies have not yet deserted Temer.
The main partner to his PMDB party in the ruling center-right coalition, the PSDB social democrats, has shown signs of jitters and was due to meet next week on its stand.
Eurasia Group consultants issued a note estimating that Temer’s chances of being toppled before the end of his term had dropped to 30 percent from 60 percent.