Brazil’s president Michel Temer is facing the biggest test of his political career this week with the beginning of a historic debate in congress on whether he should be tried for corruption.
While analysts believe the president is entering the process with the necessary house majority to survive, there is growing speculation that an important coalition ally, house speaker Rodrigo Maia, is setting himself up as a possible alternative to challenge the embattled leader.
If congress approves the court case, Mr Temer could become the first sitting president of Latin America’s largest country to face a criminal trial.
“The closer this gets to the 2018 election, the harder it will be for lawmakers to vote in favour of him. He is clearly losing support,” said Ricardo Sennes, director of Prospectiva, a consultancy in São Paulo.
Brought to power by the impeachment of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, one year ago, Mr Temer has sought to overcome low popularity ratings by pushing important labour and fiscal reforms to pull Brazil out of its longest ever recession.
But the reforms have been delayed after he was taped allegedly discussing bribes with a prominent businessman, Joesley Batista, the former chairman of JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, during a private conversation in March.
Brazil’s independent public prosecutor’s office has charged Mr Temer in the supreme court with “passive corruption”, for allegedly plotting to receive bribes from JBS through an intermediary. Under Brazil’s constitution, a sitting president cannot face a criminal trial without the approval of two-thirds of the lower house of congress.
The supreme court has sent the indictment to the congress, which on Monday will begin debating the matter in its powerful constitution, justice and citizenship commission.
If the commission recommends that the indictment proceed, a full session of the house would vote late this month or in August. If the supreme court subsequently accepts the case, the president would be suspended for up to six months during his trial.
“The advantage he [the president] has is that there is a lack of Plan B to Temer,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves, a Brazil analyst with Eurasia Group. Analysts said it would be difficult for Mr Temer’s opponents to muster the two-thirds of congress necessary to recommend he be tried.
If Mr Temer’s supporters were able to pass a labour reform bill, with a vote expected this week, that could strengthen the president, analysts said.
As house speaker, Mr Maia would become caretaker president for 30 days if the president were suspended, while congress elected a replacement for the duration of the trial.
But while there was speculation that Mr Maia was manoeuvring behind the scenes to offer himself as a possible alternative leader, the house speaker would face a challenging task convincing lawmakers to take a step into the unknown by backing him, analysts said.
One thing that might work in Mr Maia’s favour was the expectation that the prosecutors’ office would file other charges against Mr Temer in the coming weeks related to the JBS tape, such as obstruction of justice and leading a criminal organisation.
Congress would be forced to debate and vote on each one of these indictments, which could begin to erode support for the president, Mr Sennes said.