Brazil President under fire as graft scandal turns into free-for-all

Brazilian President Michel Temer has been accused of agreeing to pay hush money and taking bribes.
Brazilian President Michel Temer has been accused of agreeing to pay hush money and taking bribes.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

RIO DE JANEIRO • Thought Brazil's corruption fight was already ugly? Well, it seems the combatants are just warming up.

Barely a year after President Michel Temer took over following the impeachment of his predecessor Dilma Rousseff, he is reeling from graft allegations.

Last Friday, a court dismissed charges that he received illegal campaign funds in the 2014 election - charges that could have seen him removed from office.

But that was just one battle in a wider power struggle shaking Latin America's largest nation. And things are getting shakier by the week.

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Rio de Janeiro State University political scientist Mauricio Santoro calls the situation a political "vale tudo" - Portuguese for anything goes, or a free-for-all. In Brazil, vale tudo is also the name of a brutal form of competitive fighting, a precursor to mixed martial arts.

In court last Friday, the seven judges agreed the 2014 election that brought Mr Temer to power as Ms Rousseff's vice-president was filled with undeclared donations and bribes. But a majority sided with court president Gilmar Mendes, who said maintaining stability was more important than punishing him.

The problem is that there's little stability left to maintain 14 months after he helped engineer Ms Rousseff's impeachment and took her place. He came into office vowing to "pacify" Brazil and to rescue its recession-ravaged economy.

These plans have been rocked by a giant corruption probe dubbed Operation Car Wash that has turned the spotlight on him and many of his allies. In Mr Temer's case, he is accused of agreeing to pay hush money and taking bribes.

The opening of an investigation by Prosecutor-General Rodrigo Janot nearly brought him down two weeks ago. But Mr Temer dug in and, last Friday, defied Mr Janot in dramatic fashion by ignoring a deadline to supply a written deposition.

Instead, his lawyers branded the case "a comedy" and demanded that it be closed.

The stand-off between Mr Temer and his accusers took another sharp twist when Veja, a weekly magazine known for sensational political scoops, claimed that the President was using the national spy agency to snoop on the Supreme Court justice in charge of the Car Wash cases.

The plan, Veja wrote last Friday, quoting an unnamed presidential palace source, was to find compromising material that could be used against Justice Edson Fachin.

The President's Office quickly issued a denial.

Last Saturday, Supreme Court Chief Justice Carmen Lucia lashed out at the alleged conspiracy, describing pressure against the judiciary as "the practice of a dictatorship". She warned of "legal, political and institutional consequences" should the Veja report prove to be true.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Brazil President under fire as graft scandal turns into free-for-all'. Print Edition | Subscribe