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Brazil's congress throws out corruption charge against president

2 min 32Approximate reading time

Brazilian lawmakers tossed out a corruption charge against scandal-plagued President Michel Temer on Wednesday, saving the center-right leader from becoming the country's second leader in 12 months to be forced from office.

Despite hugely embarrassing bribery allegations, Temer had been expected to survive. But the ease of his victory was a surprise at a time when Brazil is at the height of its biggest ever anti-graft investigation, dubbed Car Wash.

The lower house of Congress needed a two-thirds majority to authorize a trial in the Supreme Court, while Temer needed only one third, or 172 deputies, either to support him or to abstain and get the charge shelved. 

In the end, he got 263 votes out of a possible 513 in a process where lawmakers voted one by one, making short, often emotional statements live on national television. That was more than half of the whole chamber.

Temer called it "a clear, indisputable" victory.

A deeply unpopular veteran of the ruling center-right PMDB party, Temer is accused of taking bribes from a meatpacking industry executive. He is the first sitting president to face a criminal charge.

If Congress had authorized 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.

Leftist opponents were hoping the scandal would sink Temer and halt economic austerity reforms that have prompted violent protests, but which Temer says will rescue the economy after a two-year recession.

The left also wanted revenge for his rise to power a year ago, when his allies in Congress ejected leftist president Dilma Rousseff in an impeachment trial for breaking budget rules. Temer, her vice president in a shaky coalition, immediately took over.

Wednesday's debate was interrupted repeatedly by yelling and occasional scuffles, illustrating divisions across Brazil.

The escape does not mean the end of Temer's problems.

Expectations are that top prosecutor Rodrigo Janot could file at least one more criminal charge, including for obstruction of justice, in the coming weeks. Opponents have also vowed to stage new street protest against the economic reforms.

But Temer celebrated his reprieve, saying "we are pulling Brazil out of its worst economic crisis in our history," he said. "I want to complete the biggest transformation ever done in our country." 


- Bag full of money -


In the current charge, Temer is alleged to have agreed to receive millions of dollars in bribes from the JBS meatpacking giant.

Car Wash prosecutors say the alleged arrangement was typical of systemic bribery and embezzlement at the top of Brazilian politics and big business. Scores of lawmakers, eight ministers and ex-president Lula have all fallen into the Car Wash crosshairs.

What was different this time was that Temer himself was targeted.

In the most damning evidence, a close 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.

In a separate investigation, prosecutors cite a secretly recorded late-night meeting between Temer and one of JBS's owners, Joesley Batista. In the recording, Temer allegedly is heard authorizing hush money payments to a onetime senior politician convicted of corruption, Eduardo Cunha.

Batista gave prosecutors the recording as part of his cooperation in a plea deal, one of the many that Car Wash investigators have used to build graft cases.

Temer has denied bribe-taking and says the secret recording does not include anything incriminating.

He has proved a canny operator in Brazil's toxic political landscape, presenting himself as a success in leading market reforms aimed at jump starting the recession-crippled economy.

And unlike Rousseff, who was abandoned by many of her own allies, Temer shored up his coalition with political patronage and support from business interests.

Eurasia Group analysts said that with a big victory he would not only have a good chance of riding out further charges but will help him in negotiations with Congress on passing unpopular cuts to the generous pension system and other reforms.

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