The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Brazil’s president survive the latest scandal? Here are 4 ways he could fall.

People join in protest of Brazilian President Michel Temer in Rio de Janeiro on May 28. (Julio Guimaraes/Reuters)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazilian President Michel Temer was already a weak leader when secret tapes surfaced this month reportedly catching him in a conversation that sounds like a casual endorsement of political bribery.

Now he’s really wobbling.

His allies in Brazil's Congress are abandoning him, while others are pushing for his impeachment. Protests in the capital on Wednesday turned violent, prompting Temer to put soldiers in the streets. His paltry approval ratings have slumped into the single digits.

Temer insists he did nothing wrong. The secret recordings by an indicted meatpacking tycoon were doctored, he claims. He refuses to resign.

Is there a chance that Temer will finish the last 16 months of his term? And if not, what happens next?

Glauco Peres da Silva, a professor of political science at the University of Sao Paulo, said the worst-case scenario would be “if he stays on and doesn’t manage to govern in any way, and the pressure on him continues.” In that scenario, the professor said, “a climate of instability and uncertainty” would linger for the rest of his term.

But many experts say Temer’s fate is already decided. “I don't think he can hold on. I don't think there is any room for him to stay,” said Daniela Campello, a political scientist. The big question, according to Campello and other experts, is how his departure will play out.

We spoke to several Brazilian political analysts, and they set out four scenarios that would all lead to the same place: Temer’s exit.

If he leaves office, the speaker of Brazil’s lower house would be temporarily sworn in, and lawmakers would elect an interim president to finish Temer’s term.

Scenario 1: Impeachment (The Long Game)

The 76-year-old Temer, a political centrist and longtime congressman, is facing the same potential fate as predecessor Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in August. The Brazilian Congress has received several formal requests for Temer’s removal since the scandal broke, including one from the Brazil Bar Association.

But as Brazilians know all too well, impeachment proceedings can take months. They require multiple votes, lengthy testimony and an opportunity for the president to mount a defense.

While the impeachment route may seem to be the established legal mechanism to address Temer’s alleged wrongdoing, it may not be the most politically appealing for his many critics. It would potentially leave Brazil’s economy limping in a state of uncertainty for months. For this reason, Oscar Vilhena Vieira, dean of the law school at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo, calls it is the “least likely” scenario.

Scenario 2: Resignation (The Political Calculation)

In this scenario, Temer takes stock of his circumstances and, realizing he will be unable to preserve the political coalition he will need to pass his reform agenda, willingly steps down. But resigning in Brazil means giving up some of your legal privileges, which are considerable.

Brazil's top prosecutor is investigating Temer over allegations of corruption, obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy. Temer could face prison, and Campello says this makes it exceedingly unlikely that the president will quit, “because he will almost certainly be arrested once he leaves office.”

Scenario 3: Mandate Annulled (Shifting the Blame)

Coincidentally — and this says a lot about the state of Brazilian politics — a court case is underway that has the potential to force Temer out. That case, which will go before Brazil’s top electoral court on June 6, will decide whether Rousseff’s 2014 victory (with Temer on the ticket as her vice president) should be invalidated.

In the past few months, mounting evidence of election-related bribery and illegal campaign donations has emerged. If Brazil’s electoral court decides that the whole election was so dirty that its results shouldn’t stand, Rousseff and Temer’s victory could be tossed out.

Peres da Silva points out that this scenario might turn out to be the most palatable for Temer, because he would be removed from office without having to assume personal blame. After all, it was Rousseff’s election, not his, and any malfeasance could ostensibly be shifted to her.

This route might also be the most attractive to many of Brazil’s political parties, because it would put the blame on Rousseff's leftist Workers' Party.

Scenario 4: New, Direct Elections (What Brazil's leftists want)

Brazil’s leftist parties and trade unions have led the protests calling for Temer’s removal and new, direct elections to choose his successor. They argue that Congress is too tainted by corruption scandals to pick someone who will have democratic legitimacy.

Of course, Brazil’s left also wants direct elections because it does not control Congress, and lawmakers are almost certain to choose a conservative-leaning figure who would push forward with Temer’s austerity measures.

The problem is that lawmakers would need to pass a constitutional amendment to move up the presidential election, due to take place next year. And unless there are massive, sustained street protests calling for that to happen, there may be little incentive for lawmakers to do it, experts say.

Leftist former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has signaled that he will run next year, and he’s still among the most popular figures in polls despite facing corruption allegations. So conservative lawmakers, in particular, will not want to give him a path to the presidency.