Andres Oppenheimer

Will Brazil get its own Frank Underwood?

In this Oct. 2, 2015 file photo, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer talk before announcing reforms at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil.
In this Oct. 2, 2015 file photo, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer talk before announcing reforms at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil. AP

Amid growing chances that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will be thrown out of office by congressional impeachment, it’s time to take a close look at her likely successor, Michel Temer, the man whom many call “Brazil’s Frank Underwood.”

Critics say that much like Frank Underwood, the character played by Kevin Spacey in the Netflix series House of Cards, Temer got his job as vice president of Brazil by winning the confidence of the president, then conspired in Congress to set the stage for Rousseff’s impeachment and become president himself.

Aged 75 and married to a 32-year-old former beauty pageant contestant, Temer is a former Speaker of the House, and was a congressman for more than two decades. As a leader of the PMDB party, Temer was invited by Rousseff to be her running mate in the 2010 presidential elections in order to win his party’s allegiance in the race, and has remained Brazil’s No. 2 ever since.

Like dozens of other members of Congress and politicians, Temer is also under investigation in the Lava Jato corruption scandal over illegal payments by the state-run Petrobras oil company to politicians from most political parties. Ironically, Rousseff’s impeachment process is not based on corruption allegations — although she is also being investigated for that — but on charges that she broke the law by manipulating the budget to make her government’s figures look better during the 2014 electoral race.

Rousseff, who could be suspended from her job as early as May 12, is now claming that she is the victim of a “coup,” and that Temer is a traitor who conspired against her. Temer denies that, and says that he had been ignored by Rousseff and top aides for years.

Murillo de Aragao, a well-known political analyst in Brazil, rejects the idea that Temer is a Brazilian Frank Underwood.

“It’s totally unfair, because Temer never conspired to impeach Dilma,” he told me. “He didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Rousseff’s impeachment process was started by two respected jurists, one of whom was a former founder of Rousseff’s Workers Party, de Aragao added.

Furthermore, impeachment is not a coup, but a constitutionally prescribed process that is being followed meticulously, he said. It has already been approved by a congressional panel, and a full House vote, in which 367 of the 500 members of Congress — including a majority of legislators from Rousseff’s former coalition — voted in favor of the president’s impeachment.

If the process continues and Brazil’s Senate upholds the impeachment — which is almost certain to happen, according to recent vote counts — Temer would take office as president until the end of Rousseff’s term in January 2019. If Temer were to resign or be thrown out of office himself because of his legal problems, there would be early elections.

Sixty-two percent of Brazilians want early elections to replace both Rousseff and Temer, according to a new Ibope poll. Only 8 percent want Temer to finish Rousseff’s term.

In preparation for his likely promotion to president, Temer has reportedly picked a market-friendly cabinet that includes former central banker Henrique Meirelles as finance minister. Brazil’s economy is collapsing, with a near 4 percent contraction projected for this year, following a similar contraction last year.

My opinion: Rousseff’s claim that she is the victim of a coup is ludicrous, especially considering that her impeachment process is following stringent constitutional steps, and that she and her Workers Party had themselves requested several impeachments against sitting presidents when they were in the opposition.

No, Rousseff is no hapless victim here. She cannot claim foul play if she broke her country’s laws. The fact that some of the legislators who voted for her impeachment are themselves facing more serious corruption charges in the Petrobras case — although Rousseff is also suspected of having turned a blind eye on that scandal when she was the chairwoman of the company’s board of directors — does not invalidate Congress’ constitutional right to impeach her if she broke the law.

As for Temer, the jury is still out. It’s unclear to me whether he is a conniving Frank Underwood, or a reluctant one. But that’s irrelevant at this point: Temer’s loyalty to Rousseff or the lack thereof should not be a factor in a constitutional impeachment process. And if Temer becomes president and is also found guilty, he should go, too, and there should be a new election as the Brazilian constitution calls for, and as most Brazilians want.

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