His predecessor calls him a traitor, and the people have little faith in him, but Brazil's businesses back him. Who is Michel Temer, the new interim president of a country with 200 million inhabitants?
If Brazilians had elected their interim executive directly, they probably would not have voted for Vice President Michel Temer. At just 1-2 percent, the 75-year-old's popularity ratings are even lower than the dismal support for elected President Dilma Rousseff, who has been suspended for six months. Temer, the son of Lebanese immigrants, is a key figure in the impeachment proceedings that have been launched against Rousseff.
Despite keeping a low profile, Temer has been politically active for over three decades - mostly pulling the strings in the background. And now, after pulling the plug on the coalition between his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and Rousseff's Workers' Party (PT) in December, Temer has slipped into the interim leadership of a country with 200 million inhabitants.
"Just six months ago, very few people would have recognized him in a photograph," said Kai Kenkel, a political scientist at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, who is currently working as a researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg.
The vice president's wife has received much more public attention. Marcela Temer, a former beauty queen, is 40 years her husband's junior and has his name tattooed on her neck.
Temer 'the putschist'
Temer, who holds a PhD in law, had rarely appeared in public before assuming the interim presidency. He could be found in discreet restaurants, large Amazonian estates and the back rooms of the capital, Brasilia. But Temer was also president of the Chamber of Deputies and has led the PMDB since 2001. Temer is still reserved in public - mostly. "He is a very capable and clever man of action," the political scientist Kenkel said. For instance, despite all efforts to seem unassuming, four days before Rousseff's suspension Temer sent his inaugural speech to PMDB members over the WhatsApp service. The vice president had to know that the speech would not remain a secret for long. "It was a shrewd move with which he established his claim to power without a public declaration," Kenkel said.
Having seized the spotlight, Temer now has to show that he can perform. In his first speech as interim president, he promised to restore Brazil's credibility. It remains to be seen whether he is actually the man for that job. Like many of his fellow PMDB members, Temer has been accused of involvement in illegal business schemes. He has been ordered to pay a fine for violating campaign finance limits, a violation that could render him ineligible for holding elected office.
"Compared to Temer, Judas is a rookie," the Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum wrote in a commentary translated into English for Britain's Guardian newspaper. In recent weeks, President Rousseff has only referred to Temer as "the putschist" or "the traitor." But, in the end, such attacks just bounce off the smartly dressed Temer. Dialogue is now the "first step" that must be taken to overcome the challenges of advancing the country and ensuring economic growth, Temer said in his first appearance in the role he has assumed.
White and elitist
Temer's political profile is hard to define. One reason for that is his party's consistently wavering ideology. The PMBD is primarily backed by lobbyists in the arms, banking and agricultural sectors - and even supported by Evangelical lobbyists.
With Brazil having plunged into its deepest economic slump in decades, Temer will likely focus on growth. "We want to reduce unemployment," he has said. More than 11 million people have no job. The news channel CNN reported that Temer is more popular on Wall Street than among Brazilians. "He will follow economic policies that are good for the market and international investors," the political scientist Kenkel said, "but bad for the social classes that have benefited from the political line of the previous government."
The social programs launched by Rousseff and the PT have pulled more than 40 million Brazilians out of poverty. Temer had announced plans to reduce social spending. Now, he has stated that he will continue the programs for families and housing. "He cannot cut back the two major social programs as much as he would like to," Kenkel said. "Otherwise, the protests will become even more massive and perhaps violent. Even now, streets in 12 Brazilian states have been blocked by social organizations, like the Landless Workers Movement."
Many of Temer's critics have found his appointed team particularly rich: The 24-member cabinet is made up of only white men. The interim president has left little room for doubt that social issues are of minimal importance to him. "He represents the interests of the elite," Kenkel said, "not the people."
Temer now has 180 days to unite Brazil as he promised in his inaugural speech. In that time, the Senate will deal with the allegations against Rousseff and then make a final decision on her removal. If the Senate votes against Rousseff again, Temer will remain president until 2018. With current ratings showing that he is broadly unpopular, Temer will probably do anything in his power to avoid new elections. And, because he is adept at behind-the-scenes networking, he is likely to achieve the political majorities he needs.