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Brazil's Temer: teetering after long climb to top

© AFP / by Sebastian Smith | A view of the front pages of the main Brazilian newspapers, reporting on a scandal implicating Brazilian President Michel Temer and Senator Aecio Neves, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 18, 2017


Michel Temer is the ultimate political insider who quietly and ruthlessly worked his way to the summit of Brazil's political pyramid -- before finding himself teetering in spectacular fashion.

Known as a backroom dealer and kingmaker, the head of the powerful, opportunistic PMDB party, now 76, has been playing the longest of games.

And it's a game the son of Lebanese immigrants seemed to have won handily until allegations this week of involvement in a scheme to hush up corruption probes threatened to topple him.

A veteran of Congress, he got his first sniff of the top job as vice president to leftist president Dilma Rousseff.

They made an odd pair -- the former communist guerrilla and first female president coupled with the epitome of Brazil's white male establishment. But they won election in 2010 and reelection in 2014.

That seeming harmony between Rousseff's Workers' Party and PMDB was paper thin and Temer's loyalty to his boss even thinner.

When her enemies began circling in 2015, charging her with having illegally manipulated the government books to hide the depth of Brazil's recession, Temer incrementally distanced himself.

Even as he denied plotting against Rousseff, his fellow PMDB member and consummate political operator Eduardo Cunha was busily building momentum for her impeachment in his role as speaker of the lower house of Congress.

Rousseff was suspended in May 2016, bitterly branding the duo coup plotters. Temer automatically became president.

- Out of touch -

New tidbits emerged about Temer's personal side after he took office.

He had served three times as speaker of the lower house of Congress and been president of the PMDB for 15 years. But to the public it was perhaps more interesting that he was married to a 33-year-old former beauty queen, Marcela Tedeschi.

It turned out that Temer also enjoys writing poetry, even if his verses have been widely mocked by liberals on social media networks.

But Temer did not seem to care about dispelling his image as a distant politician with a distaste for mixing with the public. He picked a new cabinet that looked a lot like him -- a collection of elderly, wealthy, white men.

Temer's closest attempt to warming up to regular Brazilians may have been his self-deprecating admission to Piaui magazine in 2010 that cracking jokes is not his thing.

"I don't know how to do this," he said. "If I tried, it would be a disaster."

- Just like the others -

Unelected, Temer quickly became as unpopular as the loathed Rousseff, with approval ratings sinking into single digits. Whenever he speaks on television, honking of horns and pot banging can be heard in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Temer was only given the rest of Rousseff's term -- until January 1, 2019 -- to rule. But emboldened by his victory he set about rolling back 13 years of leftist-dominated rule.

Central to this are his economic austerity reforms which he says are needed to pull Brazil from a historic recession and to end out-of-control government spending in Latin America's biggest economy.

The reforms are widely unpopular. Far from attempting to woo the nation, Temer has doubled down, saying he has nothing to lose.

That image of being above it all has certainly worked in one way for Temer: while much of the rest of the political elite became embroiled in corruption scandals, the president remained remarkably untouched.

Even when a third of his own cabinet was placed under investigation, he was unscathed, protected by presidential immunity for alleged acts prior to his mandate.

But with the opening of a probe Thursday into whether he participated in a scheme this March to pay hush money to Cunha -- in prison for taking millions in bribes -- Temer was pulled into the same mire.

Now the most aloof of Brazilian politicians finds himself in the kind of bare-knuckle fight he had always sought to avoid.

by Sebastian Smith

© 2017 AFP