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World Brazil's elite closes ranks to protect President Temer from corruption trial

Deputies from opposition parties carry signs that read ‘Temer Out’ during a key vote in the lower chamber of Brazil's Congress in Brasilia on Aug. 2, 2017.

Eraldo Peres/AP

Brazil's Congress voted on Wednesday night to shelve corruption charges against President Michel Temer, ensuring the deeply unpopular leader stays in power, for now, and providing a vivid illustration of the enduring ability of this country's political elite to quash threats to their power.

Congress members were voting on whether to allow the Supreme Court to try Mr. Temer on corruption charges brought by the prosecutor-general in an offshoot of the sweeping Lava Jato graft investigation. The charges stem from video, audio and other evidence collected by police investigating a pair of billionaire beef-baron brothers who allegedly funnelled millions of dollars to key government figures in exchange for favourable legislation. Police say that Mr. Temer was the intended recipient of half a million reais, packed in a suitcase, that an aide of his was filmed picking up from a director of JBS, the meat-packing conglomerate. Mr. Temer denies the charges.

Mr. Temer's popularity rating hovers around 5 per cent in national polls, and more than 80 per cent of Brazilians say he should stand trial on these charges. But in recent weeks, the President went on a spending spree, funnelling more than $930-million (Canadian) in federal funds to the districts and pet projects of Congress members, and buying himself the support he needed to ensure that at least two-thirds of members would block the Supreme Court from trying him. He also temporarily removed 10 cabinet ministers from their posts so that they could return to Congress and vote to protect him.

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Over the course of the past three years, the Lava Jato investigation has upended Brazil's political landscape like nothing before. An unprecedented array of powerful figures are now serving prison sentences or awaiting trial on corruption charges. The original investigation focused on kickbacks paid by construction firms to win contracts with the state energy company, Petrobras – but it has swelled and inspired spinoffs that have ensnared senators, governors and, most recently, saw former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva convicted of accepting a bribe from a construction firm. (He is appealing.)

Lava Jato began under a leftist Workers' Party government, and focused on members of that administration. But today, nearly every party is implicated – Joesley Batista, the head of JBS, said the firm provided off-the-books funding to 1,829 political campaigns. And as Congress members lined up in the lower house to vote in favour of Mr. Temer's survival, they gave off the distinct impression that few are interested in seeing the investigation continue. More than a third of them are under investigation or are facing charges for an array of criminal offences.

Nicole Verillo, with the Brazil office of Transparency International, called it a fraught moment: "Brazil today is at a crossroads: We have on the one hand great advances against corruption through the work of Operation Lava Jato … and on the other side, you have a very powerful political class that wants to hold onto power at any cost, and who absolutely do not want to be investigated or punished."

Mr. Temer's government recently disbanded the Lava Jato task force within the federal police, and cut back the officers available from nine to four. In Congress, his party is attempting to repeal the new plea-bargain legislation that has been critical to the investigation's success. In April, 2015, as Mr. Temer and his allies were manoeuvring to impeach then-president Dilma Rousseff, a senator who was Mr. Temer's top adviser was recorded conspiring with other politicians about how they could shut down Lava Jato, predicting that Mr. Temer was the best way to do it.

Elio Gaspari, one of Brazil's leading political columnists, wrote in Folha de Sao Paulo that Mr. Temer had bought himself a "regressive majority … who see, in keeping Temer on, a way to block the progress of Operation Lava Jato, protect the exchange of favours and the handouts of the state machine."

This was the first time Brazil's Congress had even considered criminal charges against a sitting president. Almost none of the Congress members who voted to protect Mr. Temer mentioned the legitimacy of the actual charges. They spoke instead about his efforts to repair the economy and the need for stability.

"We can't change presidents like we change clothes," one congressman said. (It's been less than a year since Congress voted to impeach Ms. Rousseff.) They spoke of the need to ensure Brazil's development by keeping the president in power – in defiance of the assertion of corruption watchdogs that a serious fight against corruption, and transparency at the highest level of government, are crucial to progress here.

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"The same people who took her out are maintaining him because they see it as in their interest," said Marcos Otavio Bezerra, an expert on corruption in Brazil and professor at the Fluminense Federal University. "He succeeded in controlling the Congress and winning the support of the national elite."

Mr. Temer has courted the support of the country's business leaders by pushing deeply unpopular labour and pension-reform bills in defiance of public opposition. But Brazilians, exhausted by the political upheaval of the past two years, rarely take to the streets any more – there were no demonstrations outside Congress on Wednesday, in marked contrast to the vote to oust Ms. Rousseff – and there has been little to deter Mr. Temer from pushing ahead with his agenda, Prof. Bezerra said.

Mr. Temer's survival in office is not guaranteed. There are more plea bargains, from key political insiders facing lengthy prison sentences, in the offing. The Prosecutor-General, Rodrigo Janot, is rumoured to be preparing another case against the President – but he has only a month left in the job, and Mr. Temer appoints his successor. And any new charges, however compelling the evidence they contained, would still have to get through Congress.

With files from Elisangela Mendonca

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