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Brazil president in grips of party crisis

Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (L), pictured at a graduation ceremony November 24, 2018, is embroiled in a crisis over campaign financing
Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (L), pictured at a graduation ceremony November 24, 2018, is embroiled in a crisis over campaign financing Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (L), pictured at a graduation ceremony November 24, 2018, is embroiled in a crisis over campaign financing AFP/File
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Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, one of his politician sons and his ultraconservative party were embroiled in a crisis Sunday over a campaign finance scandal threatening the leader's anti-corruption image.

The 63-year-old far-right president, who is just six weeks into his mandate, spoke with top officials in his government Friday and Saturday to try to draw a line under the affair, after key allies turned on him.

Brazilian media, citing anonymous government sources, said the outcome could be the forced exit on Monday of one of his ministers, Gustavo Bebianno, a former chief of his Social Liberal Party who is reportedly suspected of misusing campaign funds in last year's election.

The furor could divert the president's attention as he tries to focus on other priorities, including a bill to reform Brazil's unsustainable pension system, and stepping up pressure on Venezuela as part of a US-led effort to topple President Nicolas Maduro.

Bebianno had tried to downplay the campaign finance allegations. He claimed he had spoken several times with Bolsonaro while the president spent the first half of this month in hospital following stomach surgery.

But one of Bolsonaro's sons, Carlos, denied on Twitter that any discussions took place and accused Bebianno of "lying."

That triggered a storm dividing Bolsonaro's allies.

Rodrigo Maia, speaker in the lower chamber of Congress and a key figure to help push legislation in the looming pension reform bid, accused the president of using Carlos Bolsonaro -- a state legislator with no official federal government position -- to "ask a minister to resign" rather than finding a solution himself.

"If there's a problem, he (Bolsonaro) must find a solution, he cannot ... get his family to intervene as that creates insecurity," Maia told the Globo News channel.

- Damaging scandal -

Bebianno met with Bolsonaro on Friday to try to save his job. He later told a Globo News reporter, "I don't know" whether he would be remain in his post.

The minister, who is in charge of helping to run the president's office, reportedly told a confidant he regretted helping get Bolsonaro elected.

"I never imagined he would be such a weak president," the G1 news website quoted him saying.

The scandal has thrown light on a suspected campaign financing tactic by some parties in Brazil to divert allocated funds for fake candidates who garner few votes.

Bolsonaro's tourism minister, Marcelo Alvaro Antonio, who belongs to the PSL, also is suspected of resorting to that tactic, though he denies it.

The allegations, and the storm thrown up by them, are damaging to Bolsonaro, who comfortably won elections last October in large part by vowing to stamp out corruption.

That reputation has been further sullied by suspicions of illegal financial transactions surrounding another of Bolsonaro's sons, Flavio, who is a senator.

A third politician son, Eduardo, a federal lawmaker, has embraced a nationalist politics platform created by Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump's former strategist.

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