Why is Michel Temer Still President? A Brazilian Perspective

By Amauri Gonzo.

It is always hard to explain Brazilian politics to foreigners. There is a lot of history and many characters and there are 25 political parties represented in Congress alone. It is even harder to explain how illegitimate president Michel Temer, with an approval rating that fluctuates between 2 and 7% and with polls showing that 81% of the population thinks he should be subject of a criminal investigation, has held on to the presidency and just beat an impeachment attempt by a wide margin of votes in Congress.

Temer is caught in a tangle resulting from the last decade of  political history. Elevated to the position of Congressional President then Vice President of the Republic  Temer was a key actor in the coalition between Lula’s PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores/Workers’ Party) and the PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democratico do Brasil/ Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), a centre-right party- one of the country’s largest- that was  created at the end of the military dictatorship.

After the so-called “mensalão” scandal, which brought down historic leaders of the PT, Lula chose to bet on names outside of traditional party politics to guarantee continuity of the PT’s development project within the Federal Government. This is one of the reasons he chose Dilma Rousseff, his Chief of Staff and a relative political unknown, to be his successor to the presidency.  Although she had never run for any political office before, she was able to decisively beat José Serra from the PSDB (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira/Brazilian Social Democratic Party) in 2010.

The mensalão scandal of 2005 forced Lula to solidify an alliance with the PMDB party.  During the early 1980s, the PMDB rose from the ashes of the MDB (Movimento Democratico do Brasil/Brazilian Democratic Movement), a party created during the military dictatorship to house the official government opposition in order to create a two-party system and give a semblance of democracy . As the dictatorship ended, however, the PMDB showed that it wasn’t such an opposition after-all as it welcomed important names from the official dictatorship party ARENA (Aliança Renovadora Nacional/National Renovating Alliance) like José Sarney. Sarney became president for 5 years after Tancredo Neves, the first civilian indirectly elected after the dictatorship ended in 1985, died before taking office.  The PMDB absorbed a large part of the political  structure of Corolnelismo, the old tradition of regional political machines run by plantation owners and ranchers, as well as a strong block of senators and congressmen.

As Lula  lost support from a patchwork of smaller, centrist parties during the mensalão and with the dissolution of his Vice President and business community intermediary José Alencar’s PL (Partido Liberal/Liberal Party),  he decided to reach out to the PMDB. At the time, the PMDB was  a key member of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s PSDB coalition, having provided the Vice Presidential candidate for José Serra in 2002.

The Lava Jato investigations now show that the PMDB was the primary beneficiary and often the creator of the corruption schemes within Petrobras petroleum company and other paratstatal corporations. Michel Temer and now imprisoned former Congressional leader Eduardo Cunha tried to take everything they could, and everything went well for awhile. Brasilia’s political establishment never liked Dilma Rousseff, and her ascension to the presidency bothered them. They viewed her as an incorruptable centralizer and she ended several corruption schemes, firing all of the ministers who she thought were involved in any type of scandal during her first term.

A recession hit in early 2014, caused by factors including massive corporate tax breaks, an overvalued exchange rate, a fall in commodities prices and, importantly,  paralyzation of a large part of the construction and petroleum sector directly caused by the Lava Jato investigation and the resulting hundreds of thousands of lay-offs. The opposition took advantage of the moment and, led by Eduardo Cunha,  generated a political crisis that was supported by the most conservative Congress Brasil had seen since 1964.  As the president’s popularity fell together with economic indicators, an idea developed that her impeachment would be the solution for the country’s problems. Despite the trouble brewing, Dilma continued to depend on on the PMDB to secure the ropes. It was a sweet illusion.

Many things contributed to Rousseff’s fall, but one of the most essential was the way her Vice President pulled the rug out from under her. PMDB leaders who are now in Temer’s cabinet such as Moreira Franco and Eliseu Padilha created a neoliberal policy paper for the country and presented it to the national business community. The paper,  Bridge to the Future, called for massive privatizations, deep austerity reforms and a gradual dismantling of the PT’s social welfare system.  An enthusiastic business community poured money into the protests against the President.  The powerful São Paulo Industrial Federation (Federação das Indústrias do Estado de São Paulo/FIESP) created a huge anti-tax campaign using a giant inflatable duck, which it brought to all anti-Rousseff protests, often distributing champagne.  Conservative political parties also poured money into what the media called “new social movements” and conservative Congressman and union leader Paulinho da Força was recorded saying,  “many people want to finance the impeachment”.

If it weren’t for Temer’s promise of stability it would have been hard for Dilma to fall- she probably would have politically bled out for four years, as the PSDB originally wanted. But it wasn’t all a bed of roses for the national Coup movement. After taking power, Temer saw the economy collapse and unemployment sky-rocket. His promise of rapid economic recovery failed to pan out, while he ignored his promise of “fiscal responsibility” to the markets. One of the possible causes for this disconnect between promises and reality could be related to the US government. Under the brokerage of José Serra, Temer’s ex-minister of foreign relations who made several trips to Washington, the coup had the tacit approval of the Obama administration. The expectation was that when Hilary Clinton was elected American investment dollars would flood Brasil. Serra went as far as to say that Trump’s election would be impossible on national TV. Apparently, he forgot to consult with the Russians.

As political events developed, the Lava Jato corruption investigation moved forwards.  Immediately after Temer took office, audio leaked to the media showed PMDB power broker, senator and Cabinet Minister Romero Juca, saying that the impeachment took place to “stop the bleeding” from the Lava Jato investigation in a “giant national deal” that included members of the Supreme Court. Despite this and with support from the big media companies the Lava Jato investigation began to look at other parties besides the PT in an attempt to shake the perception that it was being undertaken selectively. While prosecutor and judge Sergio Moro tried to prove that Lula was guilty for conflict of interest related to reforms on an apartment that he never owned or visited, the massive scandals involving the PMDB party picked up steam.

It is important to understand that, beyond politicians, Lava Jato devastated many companies and caused hundreds of thousands of lay-offs, and that it was not the only corruption investigation underway. During the end of Dilma Rousseff’s government and the beginning of Temer’s, new investigations  started up based on evidence raised in Lava Jato, including Operation Greenfields, which is investigating bribe payments during a Trump Group hotel construction project in Rio de Janeiro. When JBS, one of the World’s largest meat packing companies, discovered that they were a focus of these investigations, their director ran to the public prosecutors office and offered a beautiful plea bargain. It is important to note that these kinds of plea bargains, which make up the basis of the entire Lava Jato investigation, were only legalized as admissible evidence due to an anti-organized crime law that was sanctioned by Dilma Rousseff during her first term in office.

The JBS testimony included audio recordings of a conversation between Michel Temer and company president Joesley Batista in which they negotiated millions of dollars in monthly payments to silence  Eduardo Cunha, who is currently in jail in Curitiba for corruption  with millions of dollars frozen in Swiss bank accounts and is trying to set up his own plea bargain in exchange for his freedom. In addition to the audio recording, the JBS testimony included video of Temer’s employee, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, receiving a suitcase with R$500,000 in it in a pizzeria in São Paulo.

The scandal, which was widely publicized by the powerful Rede Globo TV network, sunk Temer’s popularity to record lows. For the first time in the history of the country a president was accused of a common crime (Dilma was impeached over nebulous infraction charges of fiscal peddling- essentially manipulating budget figures to make the economy appear healthier than it was- but to date has not been accused of any type of corruption). For weeks, it looked like Temer’s fall was imminent, but there was a big problem: if Temer went, who would be the new president?

The Brazilian constitution stipulates that, in case the President and Vice President leave office within two years of the beginning of their term, a new President should be elected by Congress. The Brazilian left has called for  for direct elections since Dilma fell because, with the most conservative Congress since 1964 in office, it would be hard to imagine any type of progressive leader coming out of an indirect election. After a lot of speculation Rodrigo Maia’s name rose to the top. President of Congress, Maia was elected in a stop-gap measure after Eduardo Cunha was deposed and arrested.

Maia began to manoeuvre to occupy Temer’s position, promising the Market that he would make more extreme austerity reforms that Temer couldn’t pull off because of his inpopularity, especially a highly unpopular pension reform that would raise the retirement age as high as 74. But, labelled as a traitor and probably worried about the political and criminal future of Moreira Franco, his stepfather and one of Temer’s ministers under investigation in Lava Jato, he ended up retreating.

Temer took advantage of the confusion to distribute jobs and parliamentary amendments to help save his neck. He replaced the Minister of Justice, cut funding to the Federal Police in an attempt to slow down Lava Jato, sewed together support in Congress and took advantage of a fight within the PSDB which had its president Aécio Neves implicated in the same JBS plea bargain (his leaked audio conversations remind you of a crude version of Anthony Scaramucci). In order for Temer to go under investigation as a first step towards impeachment, the opposition needed 342 votes out of a total of 531 Congressmen- a difficult task.

Despite his tremendous unpopularity there were no major street protests. Left resistance began to falter. After a successful general strike on April 28th, the Força Sindical labour union federation (the nations second largest with around 5 million members) heard Temer’s call and pulled out of the second strike that was scheduled for June 30.  The PT party seems to believe it is better leaving Temer bleeding in office than to change him for someone farther to the right (Maia is from the DEM party, which is enthusiastically neoliberal).  The PT also had more urgent priorities, including how to defend Lula, who suffered an absurd, politically motivated conviction without any proof. Despite this, the ex-president continues to widely lead all polls for the 2018 presidential elections and remains the PT party’s biggest political asset.  The so-called social movements that brought thousands of people to the streets against Dilma Rousseff did not receive any money to protest against Temer for their sound cars, inflatable ducks and thousands of Indian social media bots.

When it entered the Congressional Plenary session on Wednesday, August 2, the opposition already knew it would not be able to take Temer down, but it wanted to make as much noise as possible. Unlike the impeachment hearings against Dilma, which took place on a Sunday, the accusations against Temer were voted on during a weekday afternoon when most Brazilians were at work, far from their television screens, due to a manoeuvre from a now friendly Rodrigo Maia.  The opposition unsuccessfully tried to buy time by delaying the process, but did not have the numbers to pull it off and was forced into a vote. The results were a bitter tie that favoured Temer.

Temer, who needed 172 votes to stay in office, received 263. If the Congress took on a circus-like atmosphere during the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff, full of self-righteous speeches about love of God, country and family, the voting against Temer was nearly a conspiracy of silence. Many of the congressmen who voted in favour of Temer tried to justify the unjustifiable by affirming that he should only be investigated after finishing his mandate or appealing to a supposed “stability” of a country that currently has dozens of millions of unemployed. Most of them tried to vote as quickly as possible to avoid being recorded on TV supporting the unpopular president. Maia guaranteed that everything moved quickly, allocating 15 seconds for each Congressman and turning off the microphone when they went over time, in a style completely different from the impeachment hearings Eduardo Cunha conducted against Dilma Rousseff.

Temer survived, but the final result revealed bitter divisions. PSDB appeared completely torn, with its votes divided nearly in half. Many of the parties making up Temer’s base suffered from defections- PMDB itself, with the largest voting block in Congress, had three votes against the president. Aside from a few tiny parties only the opposition of the PT, PC do B and PSOL voted unanimously against Temer. The streets remained empty in the big capital cities and the country awoke the next morning to see neoliberal Minister of the Economy Henrique Meirelles demanding that the pension reforms pass before October. Globo TV, which ran a strong campaign against Temer and was the only network to broadcast the entire voting session, came out of it all politically weakened. Rodrigo Janot, the national Attorney General, promised to send another accusation against the President to Congress , this time for obstruction of justice. If there was one certainty by the end of the voting it was that this political crisis is far from over.

Amauri Gonzo is a Brazilian jornalist who lives in São Paulo. He has written about politics and music since 2006, working for media outlets like G1, +Soma and Editora Conrad. He currently writes for Vice Brasil and Caros Amigos.

Artwork: @lascourtneylovers (Instagram)


By Amauri Gonzo

Amauri Gonzo is a Brazilian journalist who lives in São Paulo. He has written about politics and music since 2006, working for media outlets like G1, +Soma and Editora Conrad. He currently writes for Vice Brasil and Caros Amigos.