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Jun 6, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

In Brazil, Signs Emerge of a Ruling Coalition at Risk

In Brazil, Signs Emerge of a Ruling Coalition at Risk
(NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Corruption investigations into Brazilian President Michel Temer, who assumed office last year after Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, have caused a few cracks in his ruling coalition. For now, despite his low popularity ratings, Temer's multiparty alliance is holding together, and his continuing support in Congress is his best chance to stay in power while moving forward with unpopular economic reforms. But as more allegations of corruption emerge, the president's coalition will weaken, and calls for his replacement will grow louder.

On June 6, the seven-member Superior Electoral Court will resume deliberating whether Temer received illegal donations when he ran as Rousseff's running mate in 2014. Temer's trial began in April but was postponed when one of the judges asked for more time to evaluate the evidence. Another delay could happen June 6: Two new judges were appointed to the court in April, and they too may want more time to review Temer's case.

For now, the president's main allies in Congress — the Democrats and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which together control 75 of the 513 seats in the lower house — are holding steady in the ruling coalition as they await the court's decision. If the judges rule against Temer, he will have to resign, and Congress will choose his replacement via indirect election.

Temer's political vulnerability isn't confined to the Superior Electoral Court. On May 30, the Supreme Court authorized the federal police to investigate whether Temer may have obstructed justice. The court has not yet set a date to decide if the case against Temer should proceed.

Cracks Form in the Coalition 

The Supreme Court's investigation has prompted some members of small and medium-size parties in Temer's coalition, such as the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) and National Labor Party (PTN), to abandon the government. And the PSDB and the Democrats have grown increasingly concerned. According to a June 1 report in Estadao, 27 of the 46 PSDB deputies in the lower house are beginning to pressure the party's leadership to abandon the ruling coalition even if the Superior Electoral Court rules in favor of Temer, because they think the president has lost the legitimacy needed to continue ruling the country.

The PSDB's president, Tasso Jereissati, has opened discussions with other political parties to find a consensus candidate in case an indirect election is called. According to Brazilian press reports, PSDB leaders have even reached out to opposition parties such as the Workers' Party to propose a list of possible presidential candidates, one of whom could be a caretaker until the next presidential election in October 2018. Jereissati and former Defense Minister Nelson Jobim have been mentioned as potential contenders should Congress call an indirect election.

The Democrats have been less explicit than PSDB members about perhaps abandoning Temer's coalition, but they also have begun preparing for the possibility of an indirect election. The Democrats, after all, would be interested in pushing party member Rodrigo Maia as the country's next leader. Maia is president of the lower house and therefore next in line to succeed Temer, and he would take the president's place for 30 days if Congress calls an indirect election. The Democrats say Maia not only would have enough support to win an indirect election, but also would have enough congressional backing to push economic reforms forward. Maia, for his part, has continued to express his loyalty to Temer and has said he is not planning for the president's early departure from office.

One obstacle in particular is tempering support for Maia among parties like the PSDB: He, too, is being investigated for allegedly receiving illegal campaign donations. PSDB and other parties believe Brazil would continue suffering from political instability should Maia assume the presidency.

Calls for an Early Election

Meanwhile, the opposition, especially the Workers' Party, will argue that direct elections should be pushed forward to this year. The party's presidential candidate is former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who currently leads opinion polls.

But da Silva faces six corruption charges as well, and a final higher court ruling by August next year could bar him from running for president. Therefore, it's in his party's interest to call for an early direct election so that da Silva can compete for his old office. He would have a solid chance of returning to the presidency and, if victorious, would be more legally protected from the corruption charges against him. For these reasons, among others, left-wing movements and parties are expected to hold protests in the coming months to call for a direct election.

The possibility of moving next year's presidential election to this year is small, though. Three-fifths of Congress would have to approve a constitutional amendment for a direct election to be held in 2017, and most parties of the ruling coalition oppose the idea. Temer's Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which is the largest party in Congress and has many allies, would have a greater chance of staying in power if Congress chooses the next president in an indirect election. The PMDB, moreover, does not have a strong presidential candidate positioned for an early direct election.

According to a May 26 report in Folha, there have been negotiations over whether a new president chosen by Congress, with the PMDB's approval, could grant Temer amnesty. Such an outcome would be difficult to achieve, however, because there would be several legal actions against amnesty. Moreover, it would make the new president more politically fragile in leading the country until the 2018 presidential race.

Temer still has some room to maneuver to stay in power. A lack of consensus within the ruling coalition to find his successor, combined with pressure from economic elites to speed up the approval of pension and labor reforms, works in his favor. After all, there is a better chance that Temer can get Congress to pass labor reforms since they have already been approved by the lower house and need only the support of the Senate. Pension reform, on the other hand, will be more difficult to achieve: It needs the approval of three-fifths of both the lower house and Senate.

With Temer's ruling coalition beginning to crumble, new revelations from the corruption probes against him and members of his inner circle will further weaken his ability to govern. And as political uncertainty continues to surround Brazil's presidency, the country's slowly recovering economy will bear the consequences.

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