, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Feb 26 – Until recently, Brazil’s scandal-plagued and deeply unpopular President Michel Temer looked finished, but there is growing speculation he may attempt to defy political gravity and seek a new term.
The center-right leader, who came to power after the controversial impeachment of his leftist predecessor Dilma Rousseff, always said he would be just a placeholder.
Again on Friday, he insisted, “I won’t be a candidate.”
But increasing numbers think he may be bluffing.
“We should not really believe him,” said David Fleischer, professor emeritus at the University of Brasilia. “Everyone knows that Temer is very actively trying to consolidate his candidacy.”
With less than eight months before the October election, Temer had long been counted out of the running. Even now, barely anyone can imagine him winning.
“It would be more or less mission impossible, because his government is extremely unpopular and it has all its corruption accusations against it,” Fleischer said.
But after a torrid time in office, a few elements are finally going the 77-year-old’s way.
One is the weakness of relatively centrist candidates in a field currently led by leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and far-right former army officer Jair Bolsonaro.
In addition, Lula may hold an easy first place in polls, but he is attempting to overturn a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and may well end up not running. Bolsonaro, a fan of the military dictatorship that ended in 1985, may also be weaker than he looks, with polls showing him peaking.
Environmentalist Marina Silva and Sao Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin are among the others vying in third place but none is anywhere near dominant.
– Strongman –
Temer’s main claim to success so far has been overseeing a gradual recovery of the economy, even if it is still painfully tepid for the 11.8 percent unemployed.
But he has also received an unexpected shot of energy from his decision this month to crack down on Rio de Janeiro’s crime gangs by putting the army in charge of local police.
Temer remains the most unpopular president on record, with approval ratings in the single digits, but his decree got 83 percent support from Rio residents. That gave Temer a chance to play the strongman and to bask in the unusual sensation of being associated with a popular policy.
Immediately, there was speculation that Temer’s thinking behind the military intervention — which analysts say has questionable value on the ground — was that he might boost his election hopes.
Temer denies politicking, saying “there was nothing electoral in this decision.”
Regardless, the military move has allowed Temer to improve his image or at least to bury the constant drip of embarrassing news about his corruption allegations and his failure to push through widely opposed pension system cuts.
“With the military intervention, we’ve stopped talking about the… anti-corruption operation and the austerity measures. We’ve changed subject,” said Glauber Sezerino, an analyst with the French-language website Autres Bresils.
Lula also reckoned Temer was campaigning.
“Temer is trying to get a boost to be elected president. He’s trying to take votes away from Bolsonaro,” Lula said.
Bolsonaro, whose campaign depends heavily on a tough-guy approach to law and order, said “Temer has stolen many things, but he can’t steal my platform.”
– Little chance –
Temer, portrayed in Rio’s carnival this month as a money-grabbing vampire, would only have the slimmest of chances, analysts say.
“He could run but I don’t see him getting elected,” Sezerino said, citing Temer’s “lack of charisma” and warning that real economic recovery won’t be broadly felt before the end of the year.
And although associating himself with the popular military worked in the short term, “that could change very rapidly” if the Rio intervention doesn’t go well, Sezerino said.
Fleischer said that Lula being removed from the running would “change the whole configuration of the election” and that Temer will be hoping to notch up some positive achievements in the next couple of months.
Even then, there is the question of Temer’s health. Over the last year he has been treated for a urinary tract infection, prostate enlargement and aortic obstruction.
“He has some considerable health problems which in a normal situation would be a negative factor,” Fleischer said.