Many PT leaders (including Lula) put enormous pressure on Rousseff to replace her justice minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, who did not interfere with the investigations. She resisted the pressure for a time. But as it became clearer that her presidency was entering its final stretch, in a move to shore up congressional support, she replaced Cardozo, eventually settling on Eugênio Aragão, who is widely regarded as anti-Car Wash. By then, she was too weak to work out any deals that could have saved her.
Temer’s conservative coalition is much stronger than the PT. While his PMDB party has never won the presidency at the ballot box outright in the nearly 30 years since the beginning of democracy in Brazil, it has managed to install three of its vice presidents in the presidency (twice following impeachments). The party’s formidability stems, in part, from its record as perhaps Brazil’s most efficient rent-extracting machine. It has sold its support to every government since democratization: In the country’s fragmented political system, where the president’s party usually has no more than 20 percent of congressional seats, a big party like the PMDB has always been a sought-after coalition partner.
Meanwhile, several of Temer’s closest associates are in jail. One of them, Eduardo Cunha, is negotiating a plea bargain that could well implicate the rest of PMDB. Temer himself has recently become the first sitting Brazilian president to be criminally prosecuted.
It’s no surprise, then, that Temer’s people want to stop Operation Car Wash. On July 24, Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima, one of the operation’s leading prosecutors, wrote: “Ending Car Wash. That seems to be PMDB’s next step.” In fact, the new government seems to be in a much better position to fight for the survival of the Brazilian political class.
The new coalition demonstrated its superior firepower on June 9, when Temer was acquitted by the National Electoral Court on charges of campaign irregularities—specifically, accusations that the Rousseff-Temer ticket had funded its campaign with bribe money. Most people believe the trial was a sham: The president of the court was Gilmar Mendes, Temer’s close ally and a constant presence at the presidential palace; the trial was also delayed until Temer could legally replace two of the judges. It is hard to believe those same judges would have acquitted Rousseff, who ran with Temer, if she were still president. Judge Mendes was notoriously harsh against PT defendants.
Temer’s political survival is premised on giving the elites, like the powerful Federation of São Paulo Industries, just what they want: pro-market reforms. Since he took office, Brazil’s congress has approved a 20-year spending cap and an overhaul of labor regulations, and is attempting to reform pensions. While Rousseff eventually became more market-friendly, Temer has promised to be far more reform-oriented and fiscally conservative; he’s cautious about reversing tax breaks, and, with some reluctance, has restricted the role of the development bank. Moreover, he gave key economic, diplomatic, education, and justice ministry posts to the right-wing parties who lost the 2014 election. Thanks to Temer’s agenda—parts of which are reasonable and necessary—the Brazilian right will get to implement its agenda without winning an election.