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Brazilian Lawmakers Reject Bribery Prosecution of President Michel Temer

The vote on Mr. Temer came nearly a year after Congress impeached his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, for diverting money from state-run banks to conceal budget shortfalls before her re-election in 2014.

When the top prosecutor charged Mr. Temer in June with accepting a $ 152,000 bribe from a food industry magnate, Brazilians faced the possibility of losing a second president in two years.

Prosecuting a sitting president in Brazil requires that two-thirds of the lower house of Congress formally send the case to the Supreme Court. If enough lawmakers had voted against Mr. Temer, he would have been suspended for 180 days and potentially put on trial, much like Ms. Rousseff was.

But many lawmakers have argued that Brazil and its aching economy need stability, not more political turmoil.

Mr. Temer also doled out millions of dollars in federal money to key congressional districts in the past few weeks, in what some critics called an effort to sway lawmakers. In June and July, according to the government watchdog group Open Accounts, the government awarded more than $ 1.3 billion in discretionary funding. That is an unusually high amount, particularly in an era of austerity during which hospitals, universities and police departments have had their budgets slashed.

More than 80 percent of Brazilians favored suspending Mr. Temer and putting him on trial, according to a poll conducted late last month; 73 percent of respondents said that any lawmakers who blocked the charges did not deserve to be re-elected.

Mr. Temer’s approval rating sank to 5 percent last month, according to the poll, which was conducted by the research company IBOPE and had a sampling error of three percentage points and included 1,000 respondents. That makes him even less popular than Ms. Rousseff at her low point in late 2015, when 9 percent of Brazilians supported her.

Many other lawmakers are under scrutiny in a series of sprawling investigations into kickback schemes at Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, and a construction giant, Odebrecht. Like the president, they are shielded from prosecution in regular courts and can be tried only by the Supreme Court.

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Mr. Temer was charged with accepting a $ 152,000 bribe from a food industry magnate. Credit Andres Larrovere/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“There’s a metaphor in Brazil that says that when two men are drowning, they embrace,” said Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, the founder of Agora!, a civic movement that seeks to make Brazil’s political system more accessible and responsive to the public. “This is the picture of our legislative branch today.”

A series of corruption inquiries that stemmed from an investigation into money laundering at a gas station in the capital, Brasília, initially upended the nation’s culture of impunity. Dozens of businessmen and several prominent politicians have been put on trial.

But as the scandal enters its fourth year, many politicians still appear to feel beyond the reach of the law, said Deltan Dallagnol, one of the prosecutors in the cases.

“As a rule, these people still don’t believe they will be punished in Brazil,” Mr. Dallagnol said.

In recent days, Mr. Temer has sought to portray himself as a take-charge, indispensable leader guiding Brazil out of a yearslong recession. He managed to pass a disputed labor reform through Congress last month and aims to overhaul the pension system before his term ends in January 2019, calling those measures essential for long-term economic growth.

Mr. Temer’s lawyer delivered an impassioned defense on Wednesday as the hearing got underway, crediting the president with signs of a healing economy, including falling inflation. “At this time those gains are being put at risk,” said the lawyer, Antonio Cláudio Mariz de Oliveira. He called the charges against Mr. Temer “fruits of fiction.”

Lawmakers from Ms. Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, which became one of the main opposition groups after her ouster, said that Mr. Temer should stand trial.

“Brazil is being governed by a bandit who committed a common crime, which is apparent to the Brazilian people and the world,” Décio Lima, a Workers’ Party lawmaker, said in a video statement posted on Wednesday.

Wednesday’s vote does not necessarily protect Mr. Temer from being ousted early or standing trial. Rodrigo Janot, Brazil’s top prosecutor, is likely to file new charges against him in the coming days, which would force lawmakers to hold a new vote on whether the case should move forward.

While Ms. Rousseff’s ouster inspired street demonstrations on both sides of the issue, the prevailing mood among Brazilians as Mr. Temer’s fate hung in the balance in recent weeks was one of resignation rather than outrage.

Marcelo Issa, the director of political consulting firm Pulso Público, said that when Brazilians took to the streets in huge numbers to call for Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment, they expected her dismissal to bring about lasting political change.

“There is a great deal of wear and tear on an individual level for people who live in Brazil, in relation to this political crisis without end,” Mr. Issa said.

Antonio Alcantaro Lima, a retiree in Rio de Janeiro, said that Brazilians had grown cynical in the face of a corrupt political class that seemed intractable.

“I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “All the candidates that are in the media are the same. I call it a soap opera, where the script changes but the actors remain the same.”

Source: NYT > World

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