When Michel Temer was permanently installed as president less than one year ago after the impeachment of elected President Dilma Rousseff, the primary justification offered by Brazilian media figures was that he would bring stability and unity to a country beset by political and economic crisis. From the start, the opposite has been true: Temer and his closest allies were a vessel for far more corruption, controversy, instability, and shame than anything that preceded them. His approval ratings have literally collapsed to single digits.
But yesterday’s emergence of proof showing just how dirty and corrupt Temer is makes the situation utterly unsustainable. Leaks from the ongoing corruption investigation reveal that Temer was caught on tape in March endorsing an executive’s ongoing payment of bribes to maintain the silence of Eduardo Cunha, the formerly omnipotent, now-imprisoned house speaker who presided over Dilma’s impeachment and belongs to Temer’s party. Temer had already faced allegations of deep involvement in bribes and illegal contributions, but that could be overlooked because — unlike now — no smoking gun existed.
Meanwhile, Dilma’s 2014 opponent in the presidential campaign — conservative Senator Aécio Neves (shown above with Temer at the latter’s inauguration), whose party led Dilma’s impeachment and now dominates Temer’s government — was caught on tape requesting 2 million reals from a businessman. He was removed this morning from his seat by a Supreme Court ruling, had his office raided, and now faces immediate imprisonment. Aécio’s sister was imprisoned this morning as part of the corruption investigation.
In sum, the two key figures driving Dilma’s impeachment were just revealed to be hardened criminals, with documentary evidence — audio recordings, videos, and online chats — which all Brazilians will soon see, hear, and read. The exact type of smoking gun evidence that Brazil’s notoriously biased corporate media searched for with futility for years against Dilma was just discovered against the two key figures that drove her impeachment, one of whom they installed as president.
To say that this situation — Temer’s ongoing presidency — is unsustainable is an understatement. How can a major country possibly be governed by someone who everyone knows just months ago encouraged the payment of bribes to keep key witnesses silenced in a corruption investigation? The sole rationale for Temer’s presidency — that he would bring stability and signal to markets that Brazil was again open for business — has just collapsed in a heap of humiliation and destruction.
At this point, Temer’s removal — one way or the other — seems inevitable. Although he is momentarily refusing to resign, his key allies are starting to abandon him. The media stars who installed him are now trashing him. There is open discussion everywhere about the mechanisms that will be used to remove and replace him.
Even for the sleazy power brokers of Brasília, getting caught on tape directly participating in blatant criminality is disqualifying: not to stay in the House or Senate, but to serve as the symbolic face of the country to the world and, more importantly, to capital markets. What’s new is not that Temer is corrupt: Everyone knew that, including those who installed him. What’s new is that the evidence is now too embarrassing — too sabotaging of their project — to allow him to stay.
This always was the towering irony at the heart of Dilma’s impeachment. As those of us who argued against impeachment repeatedly pointed out, removing the democratically elected president in the name of battling criminality was such a farce precisely because her removal would elevate and empower the most corrupt factions, the darkest criminals and bandits, and enable them to rule the country without having won an election.
Indeed, the empowerment of the country’s most corrupt factions was a key goal of Dilma’s impeachment. As shown by yet another secret recording — one revealed last year that captured the plotting of Temer’s key ally, Romero Jucá — the real goal of impeachment (aside from austerity and privatization) was to enable those politicians most endangered by criminal proceedings to use their new, unearned political power to kill the ongoing investigation (“stop the bleeding”) and thus protect themselves from accountability and punishment. The empowerment of the nation’s most corrupt politicians was a key feature, not a bug, of Dilma’s impeachment.
The key question now — as it was then — is what comes next? Those of us who argued against impeachment repeatedly urged that if Dilma were really going to be impeached, only new elections — whereby the citizenry, rather than the band of criminals in the halls of power, chose their new president — could protect Brazilian democracy. The absolute worst option was to allow the corrupt line of succession in Brasília to elevate itself and then choose its own successors. That would ensure that political criminality became further entrenched. As David Miranda and I wrote in a Folha op-ed in April of last year:
If, despite all this, the country is truly determined to remove Dilma, the worst alternative is to permit the corrupt line of succession to ascend to power.
The principles of democracy demand that Dilma Rousseff complete her term in office. If that is not an option, and if she is going to be impeached, the best alternative is new elections. That way, the population would assume its proper place as provided by the Constitution: All power emanates from the people.
Yet that’s exactly what took place. What Brazilian elites fear and hate most is democracy. The last thing they wanted was to allow Brazil’s population to once again choose its own leaders. So they foisted on them a corrupt, hated mediocrity — who could never have been elected on his own, who indeed is now banned from running for any office due to election law violations — and he was tasked with imposing an agenda the country hated.
Brazil’s elite media and political class are now openly plotting the same scam. Many are suggesting that Temer’s replacement should be chosen not by the Brazilian people but by its Congress: one-third of whom are the targets of formal criminal investigations, most of whose major parties are rife with corruption. As we saw with Temer’s installation, allowing corrupt institutions to choose a country’s leaders is the antithesis of democracy and anti-corruption crusades. It ensures that criminality and corruption reign. The only debate should be whether direct elections should include not only Temer’s successor but also a new Congress.
Brazil’s democracy, along with its political stability, has already been crippled by the traumatic removal of the person who was actually elected to lead the country. That her successor has been exposed as a criminal exacerbates the tragedy. But it is not an overstatement to say that allowing the same corrupt factions to choose one of their own to replace Temer — once again denying the right of the people to pick their president and instead imposing on them a leader who emerges from the sleaziest precincts of Brasília’s sewer — would be its death blow.