Brazil's Temer wins victory in bid to keep power -- for now

Brasília (AFP) - Brazilian President Michel Temer defied predictions of his imminent political demise when a court acquitted him on charges of having won election thanks to dirty money.

And after Friday's vote in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) he promptly went on the offensive in his battle to survive additional corruption accusations.

Despite being branded by opponents a political "zombie" and likened to characters from "The Walking Dead" television series, the scandal-plagued president's acquittal in the TSE showed he still has plenty of political life.

The TSE judges voted 4-3 against stripping Temer of his mandate on the grounds that the 2014 presidential election was contaminated by undeclared campaign donations and bribes. That clears him to serve out the rest of his term to the end of 2018.

Dissenting judges painted a grim picture of the way Brazilian corporations seek to buy politicians in Latin America's biggest country.

But with the panel drawn at 3-3, the TSE's president Gilmar Mendes cast the deciding vote, urging cool heads at a time of national turmoil.

"You don't switch the president of the republic every hour," he said. "There are serious proven facts but not enough to annul the mandate."

That spared recession-ravaged Brazil being plunged into its second leadership crisis in 14 months, following the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff last year and her replacement by her then-vice president Temer.

It also backed up Temer's strategy of arguing that corruption accusations against him are a dangerous distraction when he is needed to put Brazil back on the economic rails.

Eurasia Group consultants said Temer's chances of being toppled before the end of his term have now dropped from 60 to 30 percent.

"We underappreciated the ability of the presidential palace to weave a narrative that Temer’s permanence in office represented the best bet for institutional and economic stability until the 2018 elections," Eurasia Group said.

- Trouble to come -

Temer was clearly invigorated, greeting the TSE victory as "a sign that the national institutions continue to guarantee the smooth functioning of Brazilian democracy," his spokesman said.

However, the decision dismayed those pushing for Brazil to face up to its massive corruption problems.

"No democracy can come out unharmed from the institutional free-for-all that Brazil is going through," said Rio State University political scientist Mauricio Santoro, slamming "the degradation of the rules and of public life.

Opponents will now get another chance to bring down Temer.

Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot alleges that Temer agreed to payments of hush money to former lower house of Congress speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is in prison for corruption.

But again, Temer is fighting back and the TSE verdict gave him new momentum.

On Friday he rejected a deadline given by Janot to answer 82 questions in a written deposition. Instead, his lawyers called for the investigation to be shut down, calling it a "comedy," an "inquisition" and "arrogant."

Analysts say Janot's next salvo may be a request for formal charges.

Under the constitution, the lower house would have to approve the charges by a two-thirds majority before a trial could start in the Supreme Court.

That approval process in Congress could be lengthy and Temer is working daily to maintain enough support among legislators to defeat any eventual charges.

If he goes, the speaker of the lower house would take over for 30 days during which legislators would choose a new interim president to serve through 2018.

The lack of a clear consensus figure is thought to be the major reason why allies have not yet deserted Temer.

The main partner to his PMDB party in the ruling center-right coalition, the PSDB social democrats, has shown signs of jitters and was due to meet next week on its stand.