Brazil’s electoral court started hearings 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) opened the first of four scheduled sessions to decide whether the 2014 re-election of President Dilma Rousseff and her then-vice president Temer should be invalidated because of corrupt campaign funding.
If the seven-judge panel votes to scrap the election result, Temer — who took over only last year when Rousseff was impeached — would himself risk losing his office. The conservative president, who faces a separate, potentially devastating corruption probe, says the election court will absolve him.
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.
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 hush money from a meatpacking tycoon to a top politician jailed for corruption.
The opening of a probe into the hush money allegations has led to hopes among his opponents that the TSE will seize the opportunity to bring him down — even if the election case is unrelated. 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 by late Tuesday. The Supreme Court granted Temer’s lawyers a request to extend that deadline to the end of the week.
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 center-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 center 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.