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Brazil's Temer: political plotter who risks losing the game

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

Michel Temer is the ultimate political kingmaker who rose unexpectedly to take Brazil's presidency himself but now faces a vote by lawmakers on whether he should be tried for corruption.

Known in his long career as a backroom dealer, the 76-year-old head of the powerful, opportunistic PMDB party has been playing the longest of games.

And it's a game the son of Lebanese immigrants with a fancy for poetry seemed to have won handily until a few months ago.

First came accusations of obstruction of justice in May and the opening of a probe that could see him stripped of office.

Then in June the country's highest election court debated on national television whether bribes and undeclared donations had invalidated Temer's entire mandate. A narrow not-guilty verdict by the court's seven judges saved Temer from immediate disaster -- but not embarrassment.

Now, Temer stands accused of taking bribes from a meatpacking industry executive -- part of a wider scandal sucking in major politicians of every stripe.

If two-thirds of deputies in the lower house of Congress accept the charge, Temer will be suspended for 180 days and go on trial at the Supreme Court. Analysts say he has enough support to survive the vote.

This all sounds familiar: a Brazilian president fighting to keep his or her job.

A year ago it was leftist president Dilma Rousseff who was being hounded from office for the relatively technical crime of breaking accounting rules. Temer, her conservative vice president in a prickly coalition, took over and promised to put Latin America's biggest country back on track.

- 'Coup plotter' -

That rise to power fits Temer's style perfectly.

Never popular or keen on electoral politics, he originally got the vice presidency thanks to his ability to bring Rousseff's Workers' Party the support of the centrist PMDB.

Rousseff was a former communist guerrilla and Brazil's first female president, while Temer was the epitome of Brazil's deeply established white male elite. The two made an odd fit.

When Rousseff's enemies began circling ahead of her 2016 impeachment, Temer publicly stayed clear. However, he worked behind the scenes against Rousseff with his ally in the PMDB, the lower house speaker and consummate political operator Eduardo Cunha.

It was Cunha who steered the impeachment procedure through in 2016 and Temer, rising to the top job without having to go to the polls, who benefited most.

Rousseff publicly branded the pair coup plotters -- a harsh claim in a country that endured a 1964-85 dictatorship after a military takeover.

- Out of touch -

Temer's personal side became better known after he ascended to the presidency.

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 former beauty queen, Marcela Tedeschi, four decades his junior.

It turned out that Temer also enjoyed writing poetry, even if his verses are a favorite target for mockery by liberals on social media networks.

Temer, however, seemed happier with his image as a distant politician. Declaring he was not looking for popularity, he said would dedicate his inherited mandate -- which lasts until the end of 2018 -- to implementation of painful economic austerity reforms.

Rarely taking part in events where he might encounter regular voters, Temer picked a new cabinet that looked a lot like him -- a collection of elderly, wealthy, white men.

The strategy worked with Brazil's business community and a majority in Congress, which believes that austerity will help roll back more than a decade of leftist Workers' Party rule and exit a two-year recession.

But among ordinary Brazilians Temer quickly became as hated as Rousseff, with approval ratings into single digits.

Whenever he speaks on television, horn honking and pot banging can be heard in major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. He was even booed loudly in the Maracana stadium when he opened the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

- Dirty washing -

And while portraying himself as dedicated to Brazil's future, Temer fell victim to his own past.

The obstruction of justice allegations center on the accusation that he approved paying hush money to Cunha, who is in prison after being convicted of corruption.

And the election court case revolved around allegations that Temer and Rousseff's ticket in 2014 was financed by dirty money.

Similar cases have been opened by investigators in so-called operation "Car Wash" against scores of other politicians, including many close allies of Temer and a third of his own cabinet.

For months he seemed to stay above it all. Now he too has been sucked into the "Car Wash" gyre -- and his fate rests with lawmakers.

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