Brazil judges delay vote which could topple president

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Policemen guard the area of the Supreme Electoral Court where the hearing against Brazilian President Michel Temer on alleged campaign irregularities will take place today in Brasilia, BrazilImage source, EPA
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Policeman guard the Supreme Electoral Court, where a hearing could end Brazilian Michel Temer's term in office

Brazil's Superior Electoral Court has deliberated but delayed voting on a case which could topple the country's President, Michel Temer.

The court, tasked with overseeing the electoral process, is looking at whether the 2014 elections were won using illegal campaign donations.

These were the elections that Dilma Rousseff won, with Mr Temer as her running mate.

Ms Rousseff has since been impeached and replaced by Mr Temer.

She was accused of illegally moving funds between government budgets.

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Brazil's President Michel Temer's time in office could come to a premature end

As a result, Mr Temer took over as Brazil's president in August 2016.

However, this case - which was paused in April - could render the entire result from 2014 invalid, meaning he too could be removed from office.

Which way will the judges rule?

Seven judges are overseeing the case.

Their hearing on Wednesday was marked by clashes between the rapporteur of the case and the president of the court, but no vote was held.

Instead, more sessions have been scheduled to take place over the next three days.

If the judges rule that the election campaign was indeed illegally financed, then the elections could be annulled and Mr Temer will be out of a job.

But that is the most straightforward scenario, BBC South America correspondent Katy Watson writes. Experts warn it probably will not be so simple.

They could implicate the entire Rousseff-Temer ticket or implicate just Ms Rousseff. And even if Mr Temer is implicated and out of a job, he could appeal or the judges could ask for more time to consider the case.

It seems the only thing that is certain is that there is unlikely to be much more clarity by the end of the week.

What happened in Tuesday's proceedings?

In the first of the four court sessions, the prosecution set out its case and defence lawyers responded.

Mr Temer did not appear and local media report that he cancelled an official event to watch the court session on TV in the presidential palace.

His lawyer said Mr Temer should not have to pay the price for the history of corruption in Brazil but the prosecution argued that there had been a clear abuse of economic power.

The judges did not cast any votes.

Riot police lined up outside the Superior Electoral Court but only a small number of protesters were there.

How is this being received in Brazil?

The case comes at an especially difficult time for Brazilian politics, which has been in a state of crisis for a while now.

Since March 2014, the country's largest-ever corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, has implicated some of Brazil's biggest names. A third of the cabinet are under investigation for corruption.

Then last month, leaked audio recordings surfaced that seemed to show the president encouraging the payment of hush money to Eduardo Cunha, the former lower house speaker who led the impeachment process against Ms Rousseff.

At first sight, this case taking place in Brasilia seems unconnected to the latest uproar because it started before the audio recordings surfaced. But it is all dirty politics, say experts.

"I think they're part of the same phenomenon," says Ivar Hartmann, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation Law school in Rio de Janeiro.

Referring to Michel Temer trying to keep Eduardo Cunha quiet, he says: "That's part of the same type of corruption that was used in the 2014 campaign so they're all related."

And the allegations against Mr Temer are so serious that they are expected to play a part in any ruling.

Image source, EPA
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Mr Temer's predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, has already been removed

"There's a big political element to it, a political calculus to it," says Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, the Latin America director at the Eurasia Group.

"Even though the case does not specifically deal with the recording of two weeks ago, that recording does provide a backdrop, a context in which judges will make a decision."

Will Temer stay or will he go?

Even before the recordings surfaced, Mr Temer had approval ratings in the single digits. But among the political and business elite he was tolerated, partly because he was trying to push through pension reforms aimed at reshaping and improving Brazil's ailing economy.

But despite the country exiting its longest-ever recession last week, his future still hangs in the balance.

"We thought before that as long as Temer was being seen as the answer to the political crisis, and by keeping the reform momentum going in Congress, things were starting to improve," says Mr de Castro Neves.

"We thought that that would make judges at the Electoral Court a little bit more risk-averse, meaning if they take Temer out, the cost of removing Temer is too high, basically plunging the country back into instability."

Image source, AFP
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Riot police guarded the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) building in Brasilia on Tuesday

But that calculation is shifting day by day with the drip-drip of new leaks, allegations and arrests.

Whether or not the judges come to a decision at the end of this week, Mr Temer's role may be untenable if uncertainty continues and he loses political support.

But if Mr Temer is pushed out of office, there will be the added complication of who replaces him and how.

According to the Brazilian constitution, if there are fewer than two years left in a term, Congress will choose a caretaker president to govern until the 2018 elections.

But nobody really knows the rules of this kind of election because it has never happened before.

Image source, Getty Images
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Brazil could be without an elected president until 2018

People here are fed up. They say they did not elect Mr Temer in the 2014 election.

They want direct elections so they can choose a new leader rather than have it chosen by a Congress that is seen as part of the problem.

Brazil's politics have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Brazil is now in uncharted territory, experts say.