Brazil's electoral court has started hearings that could topple President Temer, plunging South America's biggest country into its second state of leaderlessness in a year. Dilma Rousseff was impeached in August.
With the country rocked by protests in recent weeks and a heavy police presence outside the court in the capital, Brasilia, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) began proceedings to decide whether to invalidate the 2014 re-election of Dilma Rousseff and her then-vice president, Michel Temer, because of corrupt campaign funding. The initial session, which included a summary of the case and resolution of legal objections, offered no immediate indication of how the seven-member panel would rule. Observers expect judge-by-judge voting will begin by late Wednesday, though the court has no deadline for delivering its final verdict.
The TSE's decision will present a serious test for Brazilian democracy. The trial is taking place at a particularly touchy moment: The Operation Car Wash corruption investigations that have been rocking the country for the past four years have finally reached Temer himself and the president's approval rating has dipped to about 8 percent after less than a year in office. Just last week, Temer appointed a new justice minister.
The right-wing Brazilian Social Democracy Party, Temer's closest legislative ally since he assumed the presidency, filed the suit after the 2014 election. Both Rousseff and Temer claim innocence of the allegations leveled against them.
'History of corruption'
After Congress impeached Rousseff in 2016, many expected Temer to have a relatively free hand to finish his short mandate through 2018. But Temer, too, has found his standing dramatically diminished by the release in May of a secretly made audio recording in which he apparently approved the payment of hush money from a meatpacking tycoon to a top politician already jailed for corruption.
The opening of unrelated probes into corruption allegations has led to hopes among Temer's opponents - and fears among his defenders - that the TSE could seize the opportunity to bring him down. "Temer should not have to pay the price for the history of corruption in Brazil," lawyer Gustavo Guedes said.
The scandals that have hit Brazil's politics at all levels had reduced the TSE nearly to sideshow status, and observers expected that the court would expeditiously assign blame exclusively to Rousseff, who, like Temer, has much to lose. A guilty verdict could see her barred from returning to office for eight years.
If the court decides against the Rousseff-Temer ticket, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia would assume the presidency for 30 days while Congress votes in a new leader to serve out the remainder of the term through December 2018. Temer could appeal any ruling against him.
mkg/sms (Reuters, AFP, AP)