Brazilian president lashes out ahead of court verdict

Brasília (AFP) - President Michel Temer and Brazil's chief prosecutor were in open warfare Monday on the eve of a court verdict that could lead to the scandal-plagued president's removal from office.

The front pages of major newspapers were dominated by accusations made by Temer's lawyer that Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot is pressuring the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to rule against Temer when it meets to deliver a verdict, starting Tuesday.

Temer has been hanging by a thread since the revelation of a secret audio in which he is allegedly heard giving his blessing to payment of hush money by a meatpacking tycoon to a top politician jailed for corruption.

But starting Tuesday, he faces the separate, more immediate challenge of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, known as the TSE.

The TSE is deciding whether abuse of power -- principally the use of corrupt campaign money -- fatally undermined the validity of the 2014 election, in which Temer was re-elected vice president with then-president Dilma Rousseff. When Rousseff was impeached last year, Temer took over.

If the TSE judges him to have been responsible for abuses in 2014, the court could then annul the election results, throwing Brazil into even deeper political chaos.

Federal police sent Temer an 84-point legal questionnaire in the case on Monday, police sources said. He has 24 hours to complete the document, but also a legal right not to respond, supreme court sources said.

On Sunday, Temer's lawyer Gustavo Guedes claimed that Janot is leaning on the TSE "to pressure the court and find the president guilty."

"We are very worried that the prosecutor general of the republic is using all the apparatus that he has to attempt to pressure" the court, he told Folha newspaper.

The accusation ramped up the tension in the capital Brasilia ahead of the court hearing. The panel of seven judges is scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday before reaching a verdict Thursday -- unless an adjournment is called.

- Converging crises -

The TSE had previously been considered unlikely to declare Temer illegitimate.

At most, the court was expected to put the blame for use of dirty campaign money exclusively on Rousseff.

Since she is already out of the picture -- having been impeached for breaking government accounting rules in 2015 -- the expectation was for the TSE ruling to allow Temer to finish his mandate through 2018.

However, the eruption of the hush money allegations against him have led to hopes among his opponents that the TSE will seize the opportunity to bring him down.

Even if he survives the TSE, Temer still faces the intensifying corruption probe being led by Janot.

Brasilia is swirling with rumors that Janot plans soon to release new secret audio recordings and other evidence compromising the president. Janot's next step could also be to request formal charges against Temer, leading to a trial in the Supreme Court.

Adding to that threat is the likelihood that more suspects in the corruption scandal will strike plea bargains with prosecutors and testify against him.

Chief among those potential new witnesses is a former Temer aide, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, who was caught with a suitcase containing 500,000 reais ($152,000) of alleged bribe money. He was placed under arrest Saturday but has not yet signaled whether he will agree to cooperate with prosecutors.

Temer still has several escape routes for now.

If found guilty by the TSE, he could appeal, potentially staying in office while the process plays out. And even if the Supreme Court accepts an indictment filed by Janot, two-thirds of the lower house of Congress, where Temer still retains significant support, would also have to approve the motion.

In the meantime, the economic austerity reforms that Temer has campaigned hard to push through Congress, calling them key to rescuing Brazil's economy after two years of recession, appear to be increasingly doomed.

Eurasia Group consultants issued a note Monday declaring Temer's chances of survival at 40 percent and the outlook for pension reforms "dire."

"As such, we still bet that Temer won't finish his mandate," they said.