Raucous start for Brazil Congress debate on president’s corruption trial


Brazil’s lower house of Congress got off to a raucous start Wednesday in a debate on whether to send scandal-plagued President Michel Temer to face trial on a corruption charge.

Opposition lawmakers brandished placards mocking Temer’s rock bottom 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.

A deeply unpopular veteran of the ruling PMDB party, Temer is accused of taking bribes from a meatpacking 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 the same lawmakers ejected Temer’s leftist predecessor Dilma Rousseff in an impeachment trial.

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

The first question, however, is whether the vote will 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,” Paul Pimento, from Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party, said.

“The more of this that comes to the attention of voters and Congress, the greater the chances of us getting the votes to remove Temer.”

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.

– Suitcase of cash –
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 meatpacking 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 Brazil’s tepid recovery from recession.

“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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