BRASÍLIA — Brazil’s electoral court started hearings on Tuesday that could topple scandal-tainted President Michel Temer, plunging Latin America’s biggest country into its second leadership crisis in a year.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) held the first of four scheduled sessions to decide whether the 2014 reelection of president Dilma Rousseff and her then-vice president Temer should be invalidated because of corrupt campaign funding.
There was no immediate indication of which way the seven-judge panel will vote after the initial session which included a summary of the case and resolution of legal objections. However, voting was expected to begin, judge by judge, on Wednesday.
If the court votes to scrap the election result, Temer – who took over only last year when Rousseff was impeached – would himself risk losing his office.
The centre-right president, who faces a separate, potentially devastating corruption probe, says the election court will absolve him.
"Temer should not have to pay the price for the history of corruption in Brazil," Temer’s lawyer Gustavo Guedes said.
But Nicolao Dino, a deputy prosecutor, said there had been "a clear abuse of economic power."
Even if found guilty, Temer would be able to appeal. A judge on the TSE could also decide to adjourn the court hearings, scheduled to end Thursday, with the whole process potentially still dragging on for some time.
There was a heavy police presence at the election court in the capital Brasilia, with only a small protest by leftwing demonstrators outside.
Temer cancelled a previously announced official event to watch the court session on television from the presidential palace, with several loyal ministers and congressmen for company, according to local media.
Parallel corruption case
The TSE had previously been considered something of a sideshow in Brazil’s multi-level corruption scandals. At most, it was expected to put the blame for use of dirty campaign money exclusively on Rousseff.
Since the unpopular leftist leader is already out of the picture – having been impeached for breaking government accounting rules in 2016 – Temer was widely expected to be allowed to finish his mandate through 2018.
But Temer’s standing has been dramatically weakened by the revelation last month of a secretly made audio recording in which Temer is allegedly heard approving payment of hush money from a meatpacking tycoon to a top politician jailed for corruption.
The opening of a probe into the hush money allegations led to hopes among his opponents that the TSE will seize the opportunity to bring him down – even if the election case is unrelated.
However, the lead judge in the case, Herman Benjamin, told the court Tuesday that Brazil’s judges "judge facts as facts and not based on political expediency."
Temer’s lawyer Gustavo Guedes on Sunday claimed that Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot – who heads the corruption probe – was leaning on the TSE "to find the president guilty."
Temer came under renewed pressure from Janot late Monday when he was ordered to answer more than 80 questions in a written deposition for his corruption case. The Supreme Court granted Temer’s lawyers a request to extend that deadline to the end of the week.
Coalition in danger
If Temer is convicted by the electoral court, he can appeal, but he’d still face the ongoing parallel corruption probe and his grip on power may become untenable.
The key partner in his centre-right alliance in Congress, the PSDB party, has indicated that it is waiting to hear the results at the election court before deciding whether to withdraw support for Temer.
Without the PSDB, Temer’s PMDB party would be highly unlikely to find the necessary support to enact a controversial pension reform that is at the centre of Temer’s policy for repairing Brazil’s broken economy.
That would turn him into even more of a lame duck, just as the corruption probe intensifies.
Janot could at any time request that the Supreme Court accept formal corruption and obstruction of justice charges against Temer, triggering a trial.
And Janot could bring more compromising allegations against the president through plea bargains with other suspects. — AFP