Temer wins time in court battle over election validity

Damian WROCLAVSKY
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Brazil's President Michel Temer

Brazilian President Michel Temer won breathing space Tuesday in a court battle over whether illegal campaign funds invalidated Brazil's 2014 election, potentially requiring him to step down.

The verdict stage of the trial had been due to run from Tuesday until a vote by the seven-judge panel on Thursday.

However, the chief justice on the Supreme Electoral Court, Gilmar Mendes, said he would grant the defense request to introduce new witnesses and for more time to make their arguments. The timing for resumption of the trial is now unclear.

"There is no estimate on the dates. Everything depends on when the witnesses will testify," a spokesman for the court told AFP.

At issue are allegations that when then president Dilma Rousseff ran for re-election in 2014, with Temer as her vice president, their ticket was financed by undeclared funds or bribes.

The leftist Rousseff was herself removed from office last year in an impeachment vote on an unrelated matter, shifting Temer, her conservative coalition partner, to the top seat.

Both Temer and Rousseff deny any wrongdoing.

If the court, known as the TSE, rules that the election was fatally compromised by suspect donations, Temer could find his presidency declared invalid.

That could force either a snap election or a vote in Congress to pick a new interim leader in Latin America's biggest country.

This would be a bombshell for a country already wallowing in two years of recession and the fallout from the massive "Car Wash" corruption investigation into embezzlement from state oil company Petrobras, high-level bribery and use of political party slush funds.

- 'Total calm' -

Brazilian media reported that the judge overseeing the case, Herman Benjamin, had been intending to recommend that the full panel declare the election result void.

However, because of the agreement to reopen testimony, Benjamin never got that far.

The delay is seen as favoring Temer's bid to dodge the scandal and remain in power until the end of what would have been Rousseff's term in late 2018.

Following the Rousseff impeachment trial, there is little appetite in Brazil for yet another abrupt change of president just when economic reforms are underway.

Temer's center-right PMDB party and allied parties are in firm control of Congress and he has the backing of big business.

Even when the trial resumes there are several avenues for Temer to kick the can down the road.

A judge on the court could decide he needs more time to study the huge quantity of evidence, further delaying the matter.

Another scenario is that the court could decide that Rousseff and Temer did take illegal donations but that the evidence does not support annulling their victory.

It is also possible that the court will rule to scrap Rousseff's victory, while finding Temer not guilty and able to carry on.

"There's total calm. The president has time on his side, because there are many legal options," said a government source, who asked not to be named.

Since he took over, Temer has been plagued by rock-bottom approval ratings and a wave of corruption allegations against his close allies.

Despite his unpopularity, Temer says he will push through far-reaching austerity reforms to fix the broken budget and serve out the rest of Rousseff's original term.