Temer clings onto presidency as Brazil sinks deeper into chaos

Each day brings forth a different adventure for Brazil and Michel Temer, the discredited president who resists attempts to remove him from office without anyone understanding how he succeeds.

The calamities in our neighbouring country are so many that they already force us to write them down in a diary, from corruption scandals to judicial complaints, through political operations and shady fights between powers.

The future has not yet appeared, but we can foresee that such a dramatic spill of acid will cause the democratic system and the economy more serious damage than those in power had ever imagined until now.

The tales of calamities, the courts and corruption are so plentiful, that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. But let’s start with a brief review, mentioning only the most recent and dramatic events.

Just a week ago, Brazil’s top electoral court, the Superior Electoral Court (TSE, Tribunal Superior Eleitoral) was forced to twist the law, by a narrow majority of four to three to acquit Temer and former president Dilma Rousseff on charges of illegal campaign funding related to the 2014 election campaign.

To achieve this, the judges disqualified explosive revelations recounted by former executives at the Odebrecht global comglomerate in plea-bargain deals — the same ones that have pushed the Republic into a state of emergency — for having been collected long after the beginning of the legal process to open an investigation. That’s something like disallowing a goal in the 90th minute.

The following day, Veja magazine revealed the existence an alleged presidential order, requesting the secret services dig into the privacy of Justice Edson Fachin, a member of the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Federal Court (STF, Supremo Tribunal Federal), who must approve or reject the accusations of Joesley Batista, the owner of the giant processed meat conglomerate JBS — the man who was bold enough to record Temer in his official residence.

That tape, let us remember, earned the president the notable claim of having a formal investigation for the obstruction of justice, the receipt of bribes and illicit association opened against him. The scandal was so great, that even the official denial of the spying did not manage to keep a lid on the anger of the STF’s judges (even those who want to keep him in his position) who spoke up, using the word “dictatorship.”

On Sunday Temer rested, but the wheels kept turning. Barely a day later the president saw — with a pyrrhic effort — the main allied party of his governing coalition, the conservative Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), announce that its four members in the Cabinet would remain aligned, at the expense of a possible fracture of its legislative caucuses.

That’s not all, there will be more headlines coming. Next week, federal prosecutor Rodrigo Janot is expected to file a formal accusation against the president for the aforementioned crimes, but the trial of the head of state in the STF will depend on the Chamber of Deputies. who must vote to suspend Temer by a two-thirds vote.

Most anticipate that Temer will move to block any such attempt, but his operators and lawyers are wary of rumours that new audio recordings and evidence may further link him to corruption.

So despite all that, in the midst of this maddening climate, Brazil’s political class is still revolving around the idea that there will be an alleged “new fact” that could even further complicate moves on the judicial and political front, thus triggering the exit of the PSDB and other minor parties. They await the next move, which might prompt the resignation of a unsustainable president.

How does Temer still manage to stay in office?

On the one hand, the feeling in Brazil right now is that Temer’s fall could be the final stop before the abyss, one whose depth nobody wants to know. On the other hand, the reflexes may kick in of a harassed political class, one defending a dying status quo, in which several ministers and dozens of deputies and senators are in the sights of the prosecutors of Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) themselves.

Without the current president, social pressure on Congress would be unbearable. The lawmakers would have to appoint an unelected successor or advance elections scheduled in principle for October next year. What would emerge from this unknown process could sweep away the last line of defence of a corrupt political class.

Finally, the blind motivation of an establishment that once bet, perhaps recklessly, on the defenestration of Dilma Rousseff would be laid clear. Their hopes that a government determined to face structural reforms would quickly relaunch the economy and receive a shower of investments would sink.

But that is a well-known song. The problem is that the whole process is delayed from semester to semester and the government in charge of reforms at present is incredibly unpopular.

However, Temer did manage to impose reforms as extreme as the freezing of public expenditure in real terms for 10 years (renewable for another 10) and to move toward more flexible labour relations and a tightening of the pension system — laws that governments with the same will and with disproportionately higher levels of support failed to achieve.

According to the latest poll by the firm Vox Populi, only three percent of Brazilians consider the government’s performance to have been positive (the survey also recorded direct rejection of Temer’s government at 75 percent). The pressure is very real — in addition, 89 percent want to choose a new head of state by direct vote.

In this context, are Temer’s reforms and their historical rationale sustainable in the long term? Sooner or later Brazilians will go to the polls and it is possible to suspect that, in the framework of a campaign that will surely have a strong populist tone, a significant portion of the citizens will want to all that to be put back on the table.

Other surveys, those that measure voting intentions toward the few personalities who remain afloat in the middle of the shipwreck of the political class, presage probable extravagances.

One is the resilient popularity of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, despite the serious allegations of corruption that have surrounded him in recent years. Another is the emergence of figures such as the mayor of São Paulo, businessman João Doria, a man who has only six months of political experience and seems modelled on Donald Trump, and the ultra-rightist Jair Bolsonaro, a man who would make Marine Le Pen look almost progressive.

All in all, a fearsome Pandora’s box. But if the future is scary, it is because the present shows nothing different, other than a worrying deterioration.

Brazil is a country where the popular will has been trampled on by its ruling class. We can see this only by examining the last few years, when all the powers of the state ignored the vote of the citizens.

First, the Executive, in the hands of the Workers’ Party (PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) gave free rein to systemic corruption over their 13-year reign, nothing more than the gross interference of black money from state contractors and other large companies, who bought businesses, wills, laws and tax exemptions. What kind of “popular project” can be defended in such a context?

The second violation of the Brazilians’ will was produced by Congress itself, almost a year ago, when Rousseff was removed from office, not for her real faults but on the basis of an absurd accusation — that of manipulating public accounts, a sin committed by all his predecessors. That the deputies and senators who removed her were much dirtier than she was only added a touch of irony.

The third time citizens were ignored was about to be consummated in the trial before the TSE. The mere possibility that a president could be removed because of the influx of black money into his campaign generated an uncomfortable question in a country where almost no politician or any relevant party is safe from such practices: what argument could prove that the disposal of undisclosed funds before an election is such an overwelming advantage that it justifies reversing a result and ignoring, in fact, the popular will?

The citizens’ capacity for discernment is thus reduced to nothing, since they are supposed to be passive recipients of propaganda and advertising.

All the while, predictably, the economy does not stop suffering. The idea that a fresh and liberal government would lead the country out of the worst recession of its history is already up in smoke.

The falls in gross domestic product of 3.8 percent and 3.6% percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively, will be followed by a negligible rebound this year. Forecasts of a recovery of one percent, in force at the beginning of the year, were then reduced to 0.5 percent and, in recent days, to just 0.41 percent, according to projections of leading economists for the Central Bank of Brazil (Banco Central do Brasil). Such a situation, which may be expected to be similar next year, will be the one that underlines an even more negative feeling for citizens when it comes to voting, next time out.

Unbearable and widespread corruption; the blind, deaf and mute resistance of the political corporation; the advance of harsh reforms while lacking consensus; the virtual taking of power by judges; and the permanence in office of a repudiated figure like that of Michel Temer.

This is the formula of the acid that is coroding democracy in Brazil.

Only a responsible citizenry, restoring the empire under his will, will be able to rescue the country from the suicide to which it has devoted itself, with enthusiasm.

(Nota publicada en el Buenos Aires Herald).