The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Brazil’s new government as tainted as the one it just forced out?

Brazil's acting president, Michel Temer, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on June 16. (Evaristo Saevaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — Testimony released on Wednesday by a figure in Brazil’s enormous corruption scandal fingers some of the country’s most powerful politicians – including the interim president.

More corruption allegations in Brazil. So what’s new? And why should anybody care?

Here's why: If true, the testimony means that the party now running Brazil might be as tarnished as the one it took over from a month ago. Which leaves Brazilians wondering, now what?

The new testimony came from Sérgio Machado, who for more than a decade was the boss of the distribution arm of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company.

Petrobras is central to the corruption scandal, which involves billions of dollars of kickbacks and bribes paid to politicians, parties and executives by contractors from fat contracts. The scandal contributed to President Dilma Rousseff being suspended last month — since her left-wing Workers’ Party is accused of being deeply involved in the affair. She faces an impeachment trial.

Now the man who succeeded her, Michel Temer, has been dragged in,  along with the most powerful figures in his centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB.

There was a huge smile on the face of the PMDB’s Senate president, Renan Calheiros, at 6:30 a.m. on May 12, when the upper house confirmed a lower house decision and suspended Rousseff.  For two decades the party has played a supporting role in governing coalitions – including Rousseff’s. Now it was finally going to take charge. Romero Jucá, a powerful PMDB senator, helped Temer form a new cabinet.

Rousseff’s impeachment trial is on charges that she cooked the books by using unauthorized loans from government banks to pay for social programs. But many lawmakers cited corruption when voting for her suspension, even though she has not been accused of personally benefiting in the scandal. Rousseff says she's not guilty.

Many of those who joined demonstrations on Brazilian streets calling for Rousseff’s ouster saw Temer as the least-worst option. So what if his party has long been accused of graft? The old president would be gone and he could introduce some important measures to help fix Brazil’s broken economy and reduce soaring public spending.

Now with the full list of Machado’s devastating allegations public, they are wondering if they made the right call.

Machado said that Temer had orchestrated a $400,000 bribe for a PMDB candidate in Sao Paulo’s 2012 mayoral election. The money was disguised as a legal campaign donation, Machado said.

Temer denied the allegation. On Thursday he called it “irresponsible, frivolous, deceitful and criminal.”

Machado said that for a number of years Calheiros, the PMDB politician who is Senate president, had received a monthly kickback of $86,000 — as did Rousseff’s former minister of mines and energy, Edison Lobão, also from the PMDB. He said two other senior officials in the party — former president José Sarney and Henrique Alves, who has been serving as tourism minister — also got hefty bribes. In total, he said, the PMDB got $29 million in kickbacks, at current rates. All those involved have denied the accusations.

On Thursday, Alves quit his job – the third minister Temer has lost over Machado's revelations in just over a month.

Temer’s new government has been stained by a drip-feed of allegations for weeks now — but this is a deluge.

Jucá quit his job as planning minister 10 days after taking over when media published wire-tapped conversations that suggested he had plotted to block the Petrobras investigation. Similar conversations that Machado had with Sarney and Calheiros, also released to media, prompted Brazil’s prosecutor-general to request all three be jailed — but a Supreme Court judge denied the move.

As they rubberneck at the wreckage of their political class, many Brazilians are wondering who can take over, and what, if any, light there may be at the end of this long, dark tunnel?

Brazilian media say Rousseff is considering advocating a plebiscite in which the population could say whether it wants new elections — or not.

At this stage, that might be the only way out.

(This post has been updated to include Henrique Alves’ resignation on Thursday.)

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