RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil's lower house on Wednesday blocked a corruption trial against President Michel Temer from moving forward after concessions by the embattled leader to pro-business lawmakers, including a pledge to lower official fines for environmental damage.
The clash unfolding in Brasilia, the capital, underscored the scope of the political crisis in Latin America’s largest nation, in which hundreds of politicians have been swept up in corruption and bribery allegations.
Opposition lawmakers vowed to stall the vote on whether to send charges against Temer to the Supreme Court, decrying what they characterized as Machiavellian deals meant to keep the president in office through the next election in 2018. Under Brazilian law, a two-thirds majority vote is required to permit a sitting president to stand trial.
On the floor of the lower house, pro-government lawmakers lambasted the opposition for engaging in delaying tactics. The drama escalated following an announcement that Temer had been taken to a hospital Wednesday morning after experiencing unspecified “discomfort.” His doctor determined he has a urological obstruction, according to his spokesman.
Temer prevailed with 251 votes in his favor, comfortably surpassing the 172 he needed to dodge corruption proceedings for a second time since he became president in May 2016. The opposition gained 233 votes, but needed 342 in order for the charges to move forward.
Temer, who inherited office after the impeachment of ousted President Dilma Rousseff, is deeply unpopular in Brazil, with polls showing his approval rating as low as 3 percent. Nevertheless, his supporters insist that keeping him in office is the only way to avoid plunging Brazil into even deeper trouble.
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“The country can no longer endure political crisis. The decision today is to archive these charges, so that the country can continue growing, so that investors continue investing, so that jobs are created,” said Jones Martins, a lawmaker from Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.
Yet the backroom deals to keep Temer afloat risked further alienating Brazilian voters, many of whom say they have lost faith in their political class. Temer, Rousseff's former vice president, came to power after she was impeached for allegedly manipulating the budget and was more recently charged by the prosecutor general for running the government like a criminal organization. Her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, is appealing his conviction on charges of money laundering and corruption brought under Brazil's Car Wash operation, a sweeping investigation of bribery and influence peddling by some of the nation's largest companies.
Temer “is a president who wasn’t democratically elected, with a 3 percent approval rating — what right does he have to do this? None!” said Isabelle Ottoni, a 21-year-old university student attending an anti-Temer protest in Rio de Janeiro this week.
Temer is the first sitting president of Brazil to face criminal charges. In August, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to block a trial in which Temer faced bribery charges.
The current charges stem from allegations that he has led the Brazilian government like a criminal organization, based on kickback schemes and political favors, since he became president. Temer has also been charged by a federal prosecutor with obstruction of justice for “instigating” Joesley Batista — the owner of JBS S.A., the world’s largest meatpacker — to pay bribes to a former lawmaker who is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.
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Temer and his attorneys deny the charges and claim that prosecutors are biased against him.
“The prosecutor general . . . deliberately ignored grave suspicions that weaken the allegations,” Temer’s communications office said in a statement.
Despite the slew of corruption charges and the president’s dismal approval rating, he has managed to stay afloat thanks to his party’s majority coalition in Congress and his political dealmaking. Ahead of this week’s vote, Temer reduced fines for environmental infractions up to 60 percent as a favor to lawmakers in rural districts. He also moved to soften the official definition of slave labor but reversed himself after a public backlash.
Temer additionally removed Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport from a list of airports set to be privatized, allegedly to curry favor with an influential allied party. The Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper estimated that the consequences of Temer’s pork barrel and pledges could cost Brazil almost $10 billion.
Although Temer has avoided trial yet again, analysts say the president may emerge as a lame-duck leader, unable to force through more of his legislative agenda, particularly pension reform.
“Temer has more or less exhausted his goodies,” said David Fleischer, a professor emeritus at the University of Brasilia, referring to the political favors the president dealt out for the first lower house vote. “Now he’s passing out massive policy changes in exchange. . . . He’s a weak president and has no choice but to give into these pressures.”
Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this report.
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