Will Temer Fall?

Explosive new corruption allegations could spell the end for Brazil's interim president. What does it mean for the Left?

An anti-Temer protest in Recife, Brazil in October 2016. Héllyda Cavalcanti / Mídia NINJA

A popular chant can be heard at many recent left-wing protests in Brazil: “Vai cair, vai cair, vai cair, o Temer vai cair!” “He’s gonna fall,” it asserts, “Temer is gonna fall!” Months ago this chant had a whiff of wishful thinking to it, but last night’s bombshell revelations about the interim president could make it come true.

At 7 PM last night the journal Globo revealed that Temer had been caught on tape encouraging Joesley and Wesley Batista, two brothers who run the meat-processing company JBS to continue payments to his former ally, Eduardo Cunha, in order to buy his silence. Cunha, as the former president of the Chamber of Deputies, was one of the most devoted proponents of Workers’ Party (PT) leader Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, and has been sitting in prison on counts of corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion since October.

JBS, for its part, has been under legal pressure since March, when the federal police launched an investigation known as “Carne Fraca,” into the company’s practice of mixing rotten meat into meat sold in Brazil and abroad. The brothers handed over the tapes — recorded on March 7, 2017, six months into Temer’s mandate — as part of a plea bargain with the federal police.

In them, Temer directs JBS to speak with fellow Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) politician Rodrigo Roucha Loures — who was recently filmed taking 500,000 reais (roughly $150,000) from JBS representative Joesly Batista — about an issue with their holding company. After hearing the businessman remark that they’ve been sending the imprisoned Cunha a monthly allowance in exchange for his silence, Temer responds, “You have to keep that up, okay?”

Temer wasn’t the only target of last night’s revelations. Aécio Neves, president of the right-wing Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and Dilma Rousseff’s opponent in the last presidential elections, was recorded requesting two million reais (a little more than $600,000) from Joesley in order to pay for his defense in the “Lava Jato” corruption investigations.

Rousseff’s PT was also named, though without recordings to substantiate the accusations. Joesley asserts that Guido Mantega, an agriculture minister for both Rousseff’s and former PT president Lula’s governments, was his contact for distributing payments to PT politicians and their allies. Antonio Palocci, who also served in both PT governments, and is currently in jail on a Lava Jato-related charge, was also accused of requesting financial support for PT electoral campaigns.

The opposition, composed of the PT and their allies, is already calling for impeachment proceedings to be opened, and their requests have a strong legal basis. They need two-thirds of the lower house of Congress to open proceedings. If they succeed, Congress will be obligated to call for indirect elections, in which only legislators vote on a successor.

At the moment it’s unclear who qualifies as a candidate for such elections. Popular protests, which kicked off mere hours after Globo’s story went live, are calling instead for direct elections ahead of those scheduled for 2018. For this to happen, Congress would need to approve an amendment to the constitution altering the pre-existing text on how elections can be called.

Direct elections are less likely and their legal path murkier. But already Brazil, whose population tops two hundred million, has lived under an unelected president for nine months. Indirect elections would guarantee a year and a half more of a presidency approved by just a few hundred legislators, many of whom are under corruption investigations themselves.

With or without direct elections, the accusations against Temer have vindicated the Left’s stalwart opposition to him and opened space to dispute his prized pension and workers’ rights reforms. While April’s general strike solidified popular opposition to the reform, the institutional routes for defeating it had, up until now, remained frustratingly closed.

Temer was already barred from reelection on the grounds of previous corruption charges; more recently, he has hovered between a 4 and 10 percent approval rate. He has long since given up on courting the public. Instead, his strategy has been to push through as many hard-to-reverse reforms as possible before a president accountable to the electorate takes over. But the strain of a Supreme Court investigation and the possibility of impeachment may push his remaining allies in Congress away from his program.

Impeachment would give Brazil’s social movements a huge boost, the potential fulfillment of what is now an ubiquitous demand of “Fora Temer!” (“Temer Out!”). This slogan is scrawled on every conceivable surface in Brazil’s cities. It’s rare to attend a fair, debate, bar, or even nightclub where the chant doesn’t get started up at some point.

The anti-PT “corruption” protests, on the other hand, which commanded large crowds in the runup to Rousseff’s impeachment, have become increasingly small and isolated (though that doesn’t stop the corporate press from lovingly documenting their every move).

At the same time the accusations put the institutional left in an awkward position. With Rousseff’s usurper, Temer, and her former opponent, Neves, facing the music, it’s increasingly difficult to paint the judiciary as using corruption investigations to further a conspiracy against the PT. While the ongoing investigations against Lula still haven’t produced definitive evidence of wrongdoing, the perception of corruption is often more important than its proof, as Rousseff’s impeachment showed.

Rousseff was removed from office on exceedingly shaky grounds: for using a legal fiscal maneuver that many of her predecessors have also used. Yet the image of PT corruption was what drove crowds to demand her impeachment, not its fact.

The PT is currently defending Lula, their most popular politician, from charges related to the Lava Jato investigation. Last night’s developments mean they will be less able to rely on the idea that they are victims of a partisan judiciary. This could eventually hurt Lula in his bid for the presidency in 2018. Nevertheless, he remains the strongest candidate. If immediate direct elections happen, the PT will have urgency on its side, making him the most probable victor.

As for the socialist left, some factions offer support to the judiciary, with the belief that the Left should be participating fully in the struggle against corruption. Others are suspicious of this strategy, leery of cooperating with an institution so tied to Brazil’s bourgeoisie, and whose investigations have been easily manipulated by corporate media and politicians to the Right’s advantage. The first strategy risks alienating the unionized petista (PT supporter) base, which defends Lula and despises Lava Jato in equal measure. The second risks chaining the Left to the PT’s fortunes while ceding anti-corruption discourse to right-wing opportunists. A Temer impeachment will likely force both sides to recalibrate their position.

Last night’s corruption revelations blew wide open the range of political possibilities in Brazil. On the one hand, the country’s left has just been handed a huge victory mere weeks after pulling off the largest general strike in Brazilian history. On the other is an extraordinarily united and unaccountable bourgeoisie that’s proven willing to do whatever it takes to achieve its aims and beat back the Left. And aside from Lula, no one single figure, from any party, appears capable of capturing the momentum created by Globo’s bombshell. The result will be a lot of jockeying.

In the short term impeachment followed by indirect elections appears the most likely course. If Congress can quickly choose a new successor they will slow down the aforementioned jockeying. But this route will also avoid addressing, institutionally, the country’s most pressing questions — at the same time that they are ripping Brazilian civil society apart. This dynamic could create unpredictable consequences.

Most importantly, indirect elections would still secure a path for passing the regressive reforms being proposed. It is no wonder that right-wing movements such as the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) are now willing to throw Temer under the bus, as long as it leads only to indirect elections.

If Temer is not impeached, the consequences are even more unpredictable. Such a bald rejection of popular will and democratic norms could either produce a social explosion comparable to the mass protests in 2013, in which protests against bus-fare hikes mutated into a generalized revolt, or mass disengagement from politics, or both.

Whatever happens, in the space of less than twenty-four hours, Brazil’s left has once again been set on new terrain.