On Monday, Brazil’s president became the country's first sitting leader to be charged with corruption. Now the fate of his administration lies in the hands of Brazil's Congress — a body that is also enmeshed in the country's huge corruption scandal.
Brazil's chief prosecutor accused President Michel Temer of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the world’s largest meatpacking company, JBS. The company’s executives testified to police that the president took money in exchange for facilitating tax breaks and loans from state banks.
The charges are the latest blow to the unpopular president, whose administration is hanging on by a thread after secret recordings emerged last month that appeared to show him endorsing bribery in a conversation with the meatpacking company’s CEO. Prosecutors accuse Temer of orchestrating an $11.5 billion bribe scheme with JBS over the past nine months.
Brazil's lower house, packed with congressional members facing their own corruption probes, must now decide whether to green-light the president's trial before the Supreme Court. If they vote to send him to trial, Temer will be placed on a six-month leave, and the speaker of the house, Rodrigo Maia — himself under investigation — will take over as interim president.
"It’s the corrupt judging the corrupt," said David Fleischer, an expert on Brazilian politics and professor at the University of Brasilia.
Temer rose to office in 2016 after his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached. Before taking office, he vowed to crack down on corruption. He quickly fired key advisers and cabinet members suspected of graft. Despite pressure from his allies, he publicly supported Operation Car Wash, a sprawling corruption probe that threatened his base in Congress. But less than a year into his term, Temer finds himself at the heart of the investigation and at the mercy of some of these very congressional members.
While Temer’s allies say he can muster the 172 votes needed to block the trial from going forward, his base may crack as new accusations emerge. The chief prosecutor is expected to charge Temer with separate counts of obstruction of justice and organized crime activity in the coming weeks.
"If this drags out for four or five months, we may see a lot of new accusations. It will build up and add gasoline to the fire," Fleischer said.
By that point, the congressional members, who face elections next year, may bow to mounting public pressure to oust Temer. His approval ratings hover at 7 percent, a record low for a Brazilian president.
The president vehemently denied the charges as baseless in an impassioned speech on Tuesday afternoon. "Just as we were putting the country back on track, we’ve become victims of these politically motivated lies," Temer said, surrounded by his remaining allies.
The corruption charges mark the second threat to his mandate this month. The president narrowly escaped conviction by one of the country’s top courts after he was charged with accepting illegal donations during his 2014 campaign.
Even if he survives this round of scandals, however, the political gridlock has jeopardized Temer’s ability to mediate between Brazil’s 35 political parties and paralyzed the pension and labor reforms he has promised. As members of his own coalition call for him to step down, Temer may realize Brazil is ungovernable under his mandate.
"Michel Temer is pretending to govern the country," said Renan Calheiros, leader of Temer’s Democratic Movement Party. "Where is he taking us?"