New president, same crises in Brazil

BRASILIA, Brazil – It could be a short honeymoon for Brazil's interim president Michel Temer, who replaces a deeply unpopular leader but inherits many of the same problems.

Brazilians are hoping their country can finally move on from a months-long battle over suspended president Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, which distracted their political leaders from a laundry list of woes, including the worst recession in decades.

But although Temer has the backing of the business world, political analysts say he will likely hit many of the same stumbling blocks as did Rousseff, who was suspended by the Senate on Thursday, May 12, for up to 180 days pending an impeachment trial on charges of hiding budget shortfalls.

Temer, who has spent his career in the wings of power but never at center stage, will also face some new challenges all his own.

Sick of politics

A 75-year-old veteran of the center-right, Temer is just about as unpopular as Rousseff, the leftist leader he served as vice president in an awkward, ultimately aborted alliance.

While Rousseff's approval rating has tumbled below 10%, Temer would receive just 1 to 2% of the vote in presidential elections, according to a recent poll.

He has a reputation in Brasilia as a deft backdoor negotiator, but is short on charisma and was all-but unknown to many voters until recently.

Condemned by Rousseff as the "coup-monger in chief," he could struggle to heal the wounds of the impeachment battle and restore faith in a political system many Brazilians see as hopelessly corrupt.

"He will inherit a good part of Brazilians' dissatisfaction with the kind of traditional politics he represents," said Thiago Bottino, an analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. "It's not going to be easy for him to present himself as a new man with no relation to the felled leadership."

Lincoln Secco, a historian at the University of Sao Paulo, said Temer would also face another problem: Rousseff.

"For 5 to 6 months, we'll have the president (Rousseff), but she won't exercise that function. Temer will have the president's shadow hanging over him, pressuring his government to achieve fast results," he said.

Tanking economy

The Temer administration's greatest hope is to revive the tanking economy, Latin America's largest.

The business world has been rubbing its hands at the prospect of a more market-friendly government after years of left-leaning policy and ballooning deficits.

Brazil is in the middle of its second year of recession and is not forecast to return to growth until 2018.

To turn things around, Temer has proposed a "bridge to the future" that includes spending cuts and free-market reforms.

But getting such changes through the fragmented political system will be tough. And the pain may get worse before it gets better.

Divided society

A giant country of huge inequalities, Brazil has had a transformative 13 years under Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose social programs helped lift tens of millions of people from poverty.

To some, Temer looks like a throw-back to another era.

"The most complicated issue the new government faces is the possible rollback of the rights we've gained," Debora Messenberg of the University of Brasilia said. "There's a lot of suspicion that the advances made in recent years under the Workers' Party – social gains, labor rights – will recede."

"I think social movements will take to the streets," she added. "They're not going to make life easy for Temer."

Lurking corruption probe

Temer's party, the PMDB, has been broadsided by the corruption investigation upending Brazilian politics, which uncovered a multi-billion-dollar bribery and kickbacks scheme centered on state oil company Petrobras.

The explosive investigation, dubbed Operation Car Wash ("Lava Jato"), was the main rallying cry for the movement to oust Rousseff – although she has not been implicated herself.

Many of those protesters are just as disgusted with Temer's party, a symbol of pork-barrel politics and backdoor deals.

Although the interim president is not under investigation, key witnesses have told prosecutors he participated in the scheme.

"The ongoing Lava Jato probe remains the largest vulnerability for a Michel Temer administration," said analyst Christopher Garman of consultancy Eurasia Group. – Damian Wroclavsky, AFP /