RIO DE JANEIRO — In the two weeks since his predecessor’s ouster, Brazilian President Michel Temer has rubbed elbows with world leaders in China, been vociferously booed at the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games and signaled he will move forward with unpopular measures such as trimming pension benefits.
The 75-year-old career politician, whose low-key manner earned him the nickname “butler,” is trying to build momentum for big changes in the wake of a bruising impeachment fight that culminated in his boss-turned-enemy, Dilma Rousseff, being booted from the presidency.
Temer’s first weeks in office have gone more smoothly than the early days after he took over as interim leader in May, when Rousseff was suspended. Back then, three ministers abruptly resigned amid corruption allegations and the leaks of damaging wiretaps. Temer was also roundly criticized for appointing a Cabinet of all white men in a nation of 200 million where more than 50 percent identify as black or mixed-race. He has since named a woman to the post of solicitor general, a Cabinet-level appointment in Brazil.
“He learned from the mistakes he made when he first took power,” said Sergio Praca, a political scientist at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Rio de Janeiro. “Now he has a more clear vision of what he wants to do.”
Temer’s vision includes bold reforms throughout his term, which ends in 2018.
On Tuesday he announced privatizations of state operations from airports to sewage treatment, an overhaul that he said would attract foreign investment and help Latin America’s largest economy out of recession.
Last weekend he came out against a pay raise for Supreme Court justices, saying it would lead to a “cascade effect” of other public workers wanting a bump. He also said he plans to submit pension-reform legislation before municipal elections in October, rejecting advice from stalwarts in his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party that he take the political temperature first.
“Temer is trying to get his game together,” said David Fleischer, a political analyst in the capital, Brasilia. “His real challenge is to pass these painful reform measures. Many believe he needs to make his moves now.”
Wondering what moves he will ultimately make has much of the country on edge. For example, he has said he won’t cut popular programs such as the “Bolsa Familia,” or “Family Allowance,” which provides subsidies to poor Brazilians, but he has promised to curtail spending.
“Everybody is standing with one foot back, waiting to see what Temer is really going to do,” said Jorge Silva, a 40-year-old paramedic in Rio.
Pulling off major reforms may prove a tall order.
Majorities in Congress coalesced around the push to oust Rousseff for illegally shifting funds between budgets, but so far there is little agreement on thorny issues like the pension overhaul. Currently many public-sector workers can retire in their 50s, with women able to call it quits up to five years before men. Temer officials have floated several trial balloons, such as raising the retirement age to 65 for both sexes, all of which have swiftly been shot down by opposition parties.
Temer is also facing widespread unpopularity among Brazilians.
Many believe the impeachment process against Rousseff was a sham. She and her supporters accuse Temer, who was her vice president before, of being one of the ringleaders of her ouster, an allegation that he denies.
Since Temer assumed the presidency Aug. 31, there have been near-daily small anti-government demonstrations across the nation, and one protest with tens of thousands in Sao Paulo.
Hours after being sworn in, Temer went to China for the G-20 economic summit, giving him a chance to hobnob with world leaders while getting out of the Brazilian spotlight.
Upon his return a week later, while inaugurating the Paralympic Games in Rio, he was so loudly jeered in Maracana Stadium that his voice was drowned out.
Temer’s administration could also be impacted by a colossal investigation into a corruption scheme at state oil company Petrobras. The two-year probe has led to dozens of businesspeople and top politicians being jailed.
In a plea bargain, a former senator who had been a director of state-run oil company Transpetro said Temer had asked him to channel $400,000 in Petrobras kickbacks to the 2012 mayoral candidate for Sao Paulo from Temer’s party. Temer denies wrongdoing, and by law he cannot be impeached for alleged crimes before he became president.
But others in his party, in both chambers of Congress and in his Cabinet, are also facing accusations related to the Petrobras probe. And this week’s ouster of former Chamber of Deputies speaker Eduardo Cunha, a longtime ally, could hurt Temer.
“Cunha is a wild card,” said Christopher Garman of the Eurasia Group. “We are in the middle of a massive corruption investigation. Some big fish could talk and bring people down.”
Peter Prengaman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterprengaman