Monday, September 25 2017

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End nears in marathon trial threatening to topple Brazil’s president

Update: June, 09/2017 - 11:42

BRASÍLIA – Brazil’s top electoral court was expected to finish delivering its verdict on Friday on whether to strip President Michel Temer of his office in a trial highlighting mammoth political corruption in Latin America’s biggest country.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is deciding whether the 2014 presidential election – which saw the re-election of then-president Dilma Rousseff and Temer as her vice president – should be invalidated because it was won thanks to illegal campaign money.

Temer took over in 2016 after Rousseff was impeached. But if the court rules against him, he too may be forced to step down, plunging Brazil into its second leadership crisis in just over a year.

The trial is just one element in a whirlwind sweeping through Brazilian politics as investigators from the so-called "Car Wash" operation uncover a sprawling embezzlement and bribery scheme. Apart from the election controversy, Temer faces a probe into obstruction of justice.

All seven TSE judges must vote and so far only the lead justice on the case, Herman Benjamin, had started.

His lengthy, detailed presentation – frequently interrupted for tense exchanges with dissenting judges – was paused late on Thursday to restart at 1200 GMT on Friday. The other justices will follow at a far more rapid pace, making a final vote possible the same day.

Benjamin has made it clear that he intends to pronounce Temer guilty, branding the president’s 2014 election inextricably bound up in the corruption that "Car Wash" investigators have uncovered between politicians and Brazil’s biggest companies.

"A sophisticated scheme for illegal amassing of public money was created," he said.

However, analysts say that the court’s deliberations point to the likelihood of a narrow acquittal, with TSE president Gilmar Mendes leading the way. "Preliminary statements at the TSE indicate a 4-3 victory for Temer," the respected Folha newspaper’s website said late Thursday.

If the court does scrap the 2014 election result and Temer loses an appeal, Congress would have to pick an interim president, deepening a crisis that comes just as the economy is showing first signs of exiting its worst recession in history.

Not over for Temer

Whatever the court’s verdict, Temer still faces an equally serious threat from a probe into alleged obstruction of justice.

Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot accuses Temer of having agreed to pay hush money to former lower house of Congress speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is in prison for corruption. Temer says the central piece of evidence – a secretly made audio recording of a conversation he had with a meatpacking industry tycoon – was doctored.

Analysts say that if the TSE absolves Temer, Janot could accelerate his legal assault by presenting formal charges.

In that case, the lower house of Congress would have to approve the charges by a two-thirds majority, likely forcing Temer’s ouster. However, the voting process in Congress could be lengthy and Temer is working daily to maintain enough support among legislators to defeat any eventual charges.

If Temer is forced from office, the speaker of the lower house would take over for 30 days during which legislators would choose a new interim president to serve through 2018. The lack of a clear consensus figure is thought to be the major reason why allies have not yet deserted Temer.

However, the main partner to his PMDB party in the ruling center-right coalition, the PSDB social democrats, has become increasingly jittery and was due to meet next week on its stand. – AFP

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