BRASILIA, Brazil — People across Latin America’s largest nation collectively shrugged Thursday as they came to terms with President Michel Temer’s latest victory in his struggle to remain in office despite a bribery charge against him and abysmal poll ratings.
People interviewed in three of the country’s largest cities said they were angry and deeply frustrated at a political class that appears more interested in protecting its own than in listening to the will of voters or combatting the graft at all levels that has longed plagued Brazil.
Yet they also expressed weariness after years of scandals, political wrangling and large protests that have not led to an appreciable change.
“Brazil has become a dictatorship-type democracy,” said Cesio Lucas Araujo, a fruit vendor working a few miles from Congress in Brasilia. “Politicians do what they want and steal, and we can’t do anything about it.”
That lack of energy was apparent Wednesday when the Chamber of Deputies spent all day debating whether to suspended Temer and put him on trial for allegedly plotting to receive millions in illicit payments for helping a company with a business dispute. Outside Congress, about 30 people gathered for a protest against Temer. In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the country’s two largest cities, similar demonstrations drew fewer than 200 people.
Those numbers stand in stark contrast to mobilizations in recent years that brought millions into the streets — to protest austerity measures by local governments, to call for the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff and even as recently as a few months ago to demand that Temer resign or be forced out.
One of the biggest drivers of apathy these days is the country’s economic crisis. Brazil recently emerged from its worst recession in decades, but even modest growth hasn’t reined in rising unemployment and general fear about the future.
“People need money to feel like they can go into the streets and protest, and right now they don’t have it,” said Cassio Gilmar, who now sells newspapers in Rio because the import-export business he used to run has dried up. “Brazilians wanted the investigation (against Temer) to go forward, but our representatives thought otherwise.”
The latest national poll said 80 percent of Brazilians surveyed favored Temer being put on trial — and just 5 percent approved of the job he is doing.
Temer, then vice president, took office a year ago after Rousseff was impeached and removed as president for improperly handling government finances. His administration has been hit by repeated scandals, but the 76-year-old career politician has been able to press ahead with unpopular legislation, such as a loosening of labor rules and proposals to trim pension benefits.
A longtime presiding speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and adept at wielding the levers of power, Temer worked strenuously to shore up support as he faced the bribery charge. In the last two months, his administration has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars for the districts of many legislators while also making promises of political appointments.
In the end, Temer held together enough of his governing coalition to survive Wednesday’s vote, even though his unpopularity made it difficult for supporters. Few deputies spoke up for him during the nationally televised session, which came as the lawmakers look ahead to next year when all 513 seats of the lower house are up for election.
The chamber voted 263-227 against suspending Temer and sending him for trial before Brazil’s highest court. The result effectively stalled the bribery charge, though Attorney General Rodrigo Janot is expected to come forward with a separate obstruction of justice charge that would force another vote on whether to try Temer.
One of the biggest arguments of legislators supporting the president was similar to what many average Brazilians say: For the sake of stability, particularly in the economy, it is better to stick with Temer and wait for elections next year.
The bribery allegation was another in a flood of scandals from a mammoth investigation into kickbacks that has led to the jailing of many of Brazil’s elite the last three years. The attorney general alleged Temer orchestrated a scheme in which he would get millions of dollars for helping resolve a business issue for JBS, a giant meatpacking company. A former aide was arrested while carrying a suitcase with $150,000, much of which was allegedly destined for Temer.
The president denies the allegation and says there is no proof he received any money.
Thanking the chamber for its “eloquent decision,” Temer said late Wednesday that it is time for his government to return its focus to boosting the economy.
“I won’t rest until Dec. 31, 2018,” he said, referring to the end of his term.
Sonia Caetano, a secretary at a consulting firm who was window-shopping at a mall in Sao Paulo, said the vote made a mockery of the justice system.
“It strengthened the culture of impunity that prevails in this country where anyone with the right connections and money can do almost anyone he wants and get away with it,” she said.
She concluded: “He is guilty of corruption and should be tried.”
Associated Press writers Liliana Michelena in Rio de Janeiro and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and AP video journalist Renata Brito in Brasilia contributed to this report.
Peter Prengaman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterprengaman