The lower house of Brazil’s congress will on Wednesday vote on corruption charges against the president, Michel Temer. If two thirds of its deputies approve the charges – and Brazil’s supreme court agrees – Temer will be suspended for up to 180 days and put on trial.
The latest twist in Brazil’s political nightmare will mark the second time in a year that lawmakers vote on whether to remove a president.
But if more than a third of lawmakers vote to reject the charges – which political insiders regard as increasingly likely – Temer’s troubled administration could survive until presidential elections in 2018. And the persistent pall of corruption that hangs over Brazil’s political leaders will linger on.
Temer, who took over from the Workers’ party president Dilma Rousseff after her impeachment, is accused of corruption after a close aide was given $150,000 in cash – part of $12m in bribes prosecutors allege he and the aide were due to receive after intervening in a business deal.
"The accusation was very strong, the facts speak for themselves,” said Carlos Lima, a leading prosecutor in Operation Car Wash, the far-reaching corruption investigation that has shaken Brazil’s political and business classes.
Rousseff denounced her impeachment as a coup and accused Temer, her former vice-president, of conspiring to usurp her. Since taking over he has been hit by one scandal after another. And with his 5% approval rating even lower than Rousseff’s was, Brazilians are wondering whether his government is even more compromised than the one it forced out.
But there is little appetite for a fresh round of street protests like those which helped drive Rousseff from power, said Maurício Santoro, a professor of international relations and political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
"What people hoped for was something very different,” he said. "There is a certain apathy in the Brazilian population and this is benefitting Temer. He would be in much more difficulty if he was facing big demonstrations.”
Since the Operation Car Wash investigation began unpeeling a multibillion-dollar graft scheme at the state-run oil company Petrobras in 2014, a long list of executives, middlemen and politicians from Rousseff’s Workers’ party and its congressional allies have been jailed.
But Temer’s new administration ran into problems from the start. His planning minister, Romero Jucá, was forced out almost immediately after being secretly recorded plotting against the graft inquiry.
In April this year, after executives from the construction giant Odebrecht agreed plea bargain deals, a supreme court judge authorised investigations into eight ministers.
One was Wellington Moreira Franco, a close Temer ally. He denied allegations he solicited illicit campaign donations from Odebrecht executives and said the corruption investigations had become a "savagery”, characterised by vague, unproven testimony leaked before cases went to trial.
"The objective here is to demoralise political characters, demoralise the powers,” he told the Guardian.
He said the government was pressing ahead with a series of unpopular austerity measures designed to reboot Brazil’s economy – including an overhaul of the generous pensions system. "We have not lost focus,” said Moreira Franco.
But pension reform has been on hold while the government fights its corruption crisis, which began in May when O Globo newspaper revealed a secret late-night meeting Temer held with Joesley Batista, , a wealthy businessman whose family controls a meat conglomerate.
Already under investigation, Batista secretly recorded the meeting to help negotiate a generous plea bargain for himself and his brother Wesley that meant they would serve no jail time and later accuse 1,829 politicians of receiving bribes.
During the meeting, Temer appeared to encourage Batista to keep making payments to Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of Brazil’s lower house, jailed for receiving millions of dollars in bribes, and recommended Rodrigo Rocha Loures, a lawmaker and close aide, as someone Batista could liaise with.
Rocha Loures was filmed leaving a São Paulo pizzeria with more than $150,000 in a suitcase after intervening in a business dispute on Batista’s behalf and was later arrested. He has since been released and given the money back.
In June, the prosecutor-general, Rodrigo Janot, charged Temer with corruption, arguing that the money in the suitcase was destined for him and that he and Loures were due to get another $12m. Temer denied the charges, called Batista a "notorious criminal” and attacked the generous plea bargain deal.
He said there was no evidence he had received any of the money. But his government has had to work hard – and dig deep into federal funds – to convince deputies to reject the charges.
According to calculations by Open Accounts, a not-for-profit congress watchdog, in June and July the government agreed $1.33bn in funding for lawmakers’ projects in their own states.
"It is a commercial relationship,” said Gil Castello Branco, Open Accounts’ founder. "The government should be embarrassed.”
Temer’s party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement party (PMDB), is a network of regional bosses that likes to ally with whoever is in power at the time. The party has run Rio de Janeiro state since 2007. A year after hosting the Olympics, the state is broke and paying salaries late, crime is soaring, and the former PMDB governor Sérgio Cabral is in jail, accused of pocketing up to $100m in bribes.
"Parties like PMDB are based on local chiefs,” said Lima, the prosecutor. "Each one has their own scheme of financing, their own way of laundering money, their own treasurer. It is much more personal and less party political.”
In a poll released on Monday, 81% of Brazilians said deputies should accept the charges. And Janot, the prosecutor-general, is expected to present more.
Robeano Carneiro, a second-hand car salesman in the city of Natal, said Temer should stand trial.
"If he was wrong, he should be punished for this,” he said.