Brazil's embattled president survived a key congressional vote that could have suspended him over a bribery charge, mustering enough support on Wednesday night to stay in office and avoid being tried by the country's highest court.
President Michel Temer needed the support of just one-third of the 513 members of the lower Chamber of Deputies, or 171 members. Hours after the voting began, he had received the votes of more than that number of legislators. In the end, 263 deputies voted for the president and 227 voted against him. The remaining were abstentions and absences.
"Temer is a crook and he needs to sort out his situation with the Justice Department," said Elvino Bohn Gass, a member of the Workers' Party, one of the main opposition parties. "Brazil should not be governed by a gang of thugs."
Had Temer lost, the opposition could have moved the anti-graft investigation — dubbed Car Wash — forward to the top court. If Congress had authorised the trial and the Supreme Court accepted it, he would have been suspended for 180 days and the speaker of the lower house would have become interim president.
The current show of support for Temer raises some prospects that he can now move ahead with reform of Brazil's pension system that is crucial to plug a wide budget deficit and revive investor confidence in an economy emerging from recession.
However, he won't likely have much time to celebrate.
Attorney General Rodrigo Janot, who levelled the bribery charge against Temer, is expected to charge him with obstruction of justice by the end of the month.
That would provoke a second vote, forcing his allies to once again decide whether to risk their own political futures by sticking with the deeply unpopular leader. All 513 seats in the chamber are up for election next year.
The bribery allegation, which stunned even Brazilians inured to graft cases, was the latest in a bevvy of scandals that have rocked the administration and created deep uncertainty and angst in Latin America's largest nation. Temer, then vice president, took office about a year ago after Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed as president for improperly handling government finances.
Temer content with the vote
Temer welcomed the vote as "clear and incontestable" and vowed to work to restore economic growth.
"With the support the lower house has given me, we will pass all the reforms that the country needs," he said.
"Now it is time to invest in our country. Brazil is ready to start growing again," he said.
The real story in Brazil is the fallout we will see from all of the deals that Prez Temer cut to guarantee he'd have enough votes today.— Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 2, 2017
"Out with Temer!" slogans raised
Temer's main coalition ally, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which seeks to win the presidential election next year, was split on whether to back Temer, whose economic policies it shares or distance itself from his corruption-plagued government.
PSDB leader Ricardo Tripoli, calling for the charge to be approved, said Temer must be investigated, "not because we want to oust the president, but because Brazilians are tired of so much suspicion surrounding their politicians."
To shield Temer only further undermines the credibility of Brazil's political system, Tripoli said.
Brazil's top prosecutor Rodrigo Janot in June charged Temer with arranging to eventually receive a total of $12.2 million in bribes from the world's largest meatpacker, JBS SA, in return for political favours.
Recently the state's witness from J&F;'s group — the parent company of JBS — admitted that the company spent around $185 million to bribe nearly 1,900 politicians in recent years.
Striking how many lawmakers are justifying vote in Temer's favor b/c want stability + reform agenda, not b/c charges lack merit. #Brazil— David Biller (@DLBiller) August 2, 2017
Other JBS executives in plea-bargain testimony accused Temer of taking nearly $5 million in bribes from the company in recent years.
In the most damning evidence, a close Temer aide was filmed by police running through Sao Paulo with a suitcase stuffed with the equivalent of $150,000 in Brazilian reais - money that the prosecutor says was being delivered to Temer.
Temer and his legal team have denied any wrongdoing.