RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The man who may become Brazil’s next president is almost as unpopular as the leader facing impeachment now, and stained by scandals of his own.
Vice President Michel Temer, who hasn’t won an election on his own in a decade, is famed as a backstage wheeler-dealer, and detractors say he’s leading the plot to replace his boss, embattled President Dilma Rousseff.
The lower house of Brazil’s Congress voted on Sunday to impeach Rousseff and if the Senate agrees to consider the measure, she’ll be suspended while a trial is conducted.
That means Temer would take over during the trial and possibly through the end of Rousseff’s term in 2018 — assuming he can avoid ouster himself.
He signed off on some of the allegedly illegal budget measures that led to the impeachment drive against Rousseff and has been implicated, though never charged, in several corruption investigations.
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Temer is one of the country’s least popular politicians but has managed to climb his way to the top, in large part by building close relationships with fellow politicians as leader of the large but fractured Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.
While the 75-year-old’s reserved manner has earned him the nickname of “butler,” he is not without flash. His wife is 32-year-old Marcela Temer, an ex-beauty pageant contestant who tattooed Temer’s name on her neck.
Allies, such as former Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wellington Moreira Franco, say Temer’s ability to cut deals will help him unify the country at a time when deep polarization has exacerbated the worst crisis to face Latin America’s largest economy since the 1930s.
“Michel is a man of common sense,” Franco told The Associated Press. “He never wanted to be in this position, but he feels someone needs to end the division soon.”
Critics, and there are many, say Temer is anything but a statesman simply looking out for the future of his nation.
“Captain of the coup,” former Finance Minister Ciro Gomes called Temer, using the term used by Rousseff to describe the impeachment process.
“If (Temer) becomes president, I will campaign for his impeachment the next day,” Gomes recently told reporters.
While Rousseff and Temer have long had a frosty relationship, their political alliance formally ruptured last week when Rousseff publicly accused him of plotting against her. Temer has said he won’t address the impeachment matter until the Senate decides.
And amid months of political maneuvering on all sides, one incident involving Temer stands out as bizarre: a 13-minute audio of him rehearsing an inauguration speech days before the impeachment vote. Temer said it was “accidently leaked,” though detractors say more likely it was done to gauge public sentiment.
As president, Temer would inherit a long list of problems. The economy is expected to contract by nearly 4 percent, the Zika virus has ravaged poor northeastern states, and sharp budget cuts combined with political instability are fueling worries about the country’s readiness to host the Summer Olympics in August.
For months, the business community has been hoping that Temer would take over from the leftist Rousseff. But whether he’ll have the ability or appetite to take on major reforms, such as overhauling a costly pension system, is unclear.
“I think that Temer is not going to be able to govern if he assumes the presidency,” said Jandira Feghali, a Rousseff ally and Brazilian Communist Party representative, arguing that Temer won’t have legitimacy without a presidential election.
Like some 60 percent of Congress’ 594 members, Temer faces allegations of corruption, including in the massive kickback scheme at the state oil company Petrobras. In a recent plea bargain by a key senator, Temer was accused of supporting one of the company’s former directors involved in overpricing contracts for bribes. Investigators suspect the payments went to Temer and his party.
The vice president has also been accused of involvement in an illegal ethanol-purchasing scheme and of being on a list of secret payments made by constructor Camargo Correa, presumably for contract favors. Temer has denied wrongdoing.
As an elected official, he enjoys a high level of immunity; only the country’s highest court can decide to try him.
A respected constitutional scholar, Temer got into politics in the 1960s. His first government job was in the education department for Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state.
He worked during the administration of Gov. Adhemar de Barros, whose management style was described by many Sao Paulo residents as “steal but get things done.”
He entered Congress in 1987 as Brazil was drafting its post-military-dictatorship constitution and remained in the lower house, with the exception of a two-year gap, until 2010.
In 2006, the last time he ran for an election on his own, Temer was one of the least voted-for deputies from Sao Paulo. Still, because his party was crucial in the governing coalition, he became speaker a third time in 2009 and was Rousseff’s running mate in the 2010 and again in 2014.
Only 2 percent of Brazilians said they’d vote for him for president in 2018, according to a recent nationwide poll by Datafolha. The April 9 poll also found that 58 percent of Brazilians would want him impeached if he takes over for Rousseff. The margin of error was 2 percentage points, and 2,779 people were interviewed in 170 cities.
“If he goes out and says he won’t run for re-election, he’ll be given the status of a statesman,” said Marcos Troyjo, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs. “That would give his government a grace period.”
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