RIO DE JANEIRO – Michel Temer is a president few Brazilians want, replacing a leader few saw fit to stay.
The Senate’s dismissal on Wednesday of Dilma Rousseff, the least popular president since Brazil returned to democracy three decades ago, handed power to the vice president, who is almost as unpopular.
For much of his five decades in politics, the soft-spoken Temer has worked in the shadows, building alliances within his fragmented Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and rising to become one of the leading deal-makers in Brazil’s Congress.
His discrete manner and impeccable dress earned him the nickname among political allies and enemies alike of “The Butler.”
Now the 75-year-old, who will serve out the presidential term through 2018, must win the confidence of a nation bitterly divided by the impeachment process and frustrated by the worst recession in decades.
He must also overcome Brazilians’ disillusionment with the political class, which many see him embodying, after a sweeping corruption scandal at the state oil company Petrobras that has ensnared his party.
“It is time to reunite the country and put national interests above those of groups,” Temer said Thursday in his first televised address as president. “I repeat my commitment to democratically dialogue with all sectors of Brazilian society.”
Temer has already shown he will steer Latin America’s largest nation to the center-right since he took over as interim president when Rousseff was suspended in May, unveiling plans to curb public spending and reform the generous pension system and welfare benefits.
That agenda will make unity hard to achieve with many blue-collar voters already angry at the loss of hard-won economic gains achieved during 13 years of Workers Party rule and unemployment running at nearly 12 million, or just over 11 percent.
After Temer’s swearing-in on Wednesday, hundreds of youths took to the streets of Sao Paulo, smashing shop windows and hurling rocks at riot police, who responded with tear gas.
“There is no single leader who can unify Brazil at this moment — certainly not Temer,” said Sergio Praca, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a leading Brazilian university.
“For a portion of the population, whether fair or not, he is linked to the idea that there has been a ‘coup.’ His challenge is not just pushing through reforms. His challenge is his political survival.”
Rousseff, 68, was a gruff leader who minced no words with subordinates who made mistakes. Temer, who speaks in the rigidly formal Portuguese of a former constitutional law professor, could not be more different — from Rousseff or most of his countrymen.
The son of Lebanese immigrants who arrived in Brazil in 1925, Temer was the youngest of eight children. He began his political career in the 1960s.
He first served as an aide to Sao Paulo state’s education secretary under Governor Adhemar de Barros — one of the politicians who inspired the Brazilian saying: “He steals, but he gets things done.”
But behind his old-fashioned demeanour and slicked-back gray locks, Temer is not entirely what one would expect from his staid public image.
The father of five children is married to a former beauty pageant contestant 42 years his junior who has his name tattooed on her neck. He has also in recent years released a book of poetry titled “Anonymous Intimacy.”
Its terse verse was penned on airplane napkins while he traveled from the capital Brasilia to his base in Sao Paulo. It includes praise for the female form and oblique allusions to Brazil’s polarized politics.
He has a low-key style but is not above splashes of vanity. Several years ago, he had a nose operation that corrected a deviated septum but also, he acknowledged, improved his looks.
Temer honed his craft over more than a decade in Brazil’s bare-knuckle lower house of Congress, where he was an ally to both centrist President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor. He earned a reputation for staying above the fray.
Those who have worked with him say he rarely raises his voice, does not curse and refrains from the dramatic theatrics his peers employ during debates — especially the antics seen from all sides during Rousseff’s impeachment.
For 15 years, he led the PMDB, an amorphous group with no consistent ideology, which holds more Congressional seats than any other.
Since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, the PMDB has mostly been content to let other parties hold the presidency while it positioned itself as the legislative power broker, winning pork barrel perks and control of ministries and their budgets in return for support in Congress.
Now, though, the PMDB plans to field its own presidential candidate in 2018.
Although Temer himself has said he will not run, his supporters say his long career working across the ideological spectrum makes him a strong transitional leader and will help set the PMDB up for whomever it casts as its candidate.
But Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at Tendencias, a Sao Paulo consulting firm, said Temer’s background and cordial manner could in fact be a liability.
“The economic and political crises we are facing will require confrontation with both opposition and allies alike to push through reforms,” Cortez said. “The success of a Temer presidency will depend on his willingness to be confrontational.”
Because Temer comes from the old, elite political class, Cortez said, he does not satiate the public’s deep appetite for political renewal.
“For that reason, the urgency underlying his presidency is to at least deliver on economic growth. If he achieves only that, not only does the PMDB stand a better chance in the 2018 elections, but it is not unreasonable to assume that Temer himself could make a run.”
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