BRASILIA, Brazil – Picking up Brazil’s reins after the Senate voted to suspend President Dilma Rousseff, acting President Michel Temer pledged Thursday to jumpstart the stalled economy and push ahead with a sprawling corruption investigation that has already ensnared top leaders of his own party and even implicated Temer himself.
Temer spoke in the same narrow hall where a defiant Rousseff made what may prove her last remarks as president earlier in the day. He reached out a timid olive branch to his two-time running mate, saying he wanted his appearance to be “sober” in recognition of his “institutional respect” for Rousseff and of the deep divisions caused by the impeachment campaign against her.
“This is not a moment for celebrations, but one of profound reflection,” Temer said at a chaotic swearing-in ceremony for the 22 members of his new Cabinet. “It’s urgent to pacify the nation and unify the country. It’s urgent for us to form a government of national salvation . to pull this country out of the serious crisis in which we find ourselves.”
The Senate voted 55-22 to impeach Rousseff over allegations her government broke fiscal laws in managing the federal budget. Rousseff insisted the accusations are baseless, since such financial manoeuvrs have been common practice by other Brazilian presidents without repercussions.
She was immediately suspended for 180 days pending a trial in the Senate. If she is found by two-thirds of the Senate to have committed crimes, Temer will serve out the remainder of her term, which ends in December 2018.
Rousseff maintained the action against her amounts to a “coup” cooked up by power-hungry opponents bent on rolling back the clock on government social programs that wrenched an estimated 35 million Brazilians out of poverty during the 13 years in power by her left-leaning Workers’ Party.
She has said the “chief conspirator” against her was Temer, the longtime leader of the centrist Democratic Movement Party that is known less for a specific ideological stance than for its skill at backroom deal making.
Speaking just before leaving the presidential palace, Rousseff said she wouldn’t give up.
“I am the victim of a great injustice,” said the former Marxist guerrilla who rose to power in 2010 on the coattails of her wildly popular predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
“I fought my whole life and I’m going to keep fighting,” she said, signalling that she and her supporters may intend to make good on a promised campaign of protests and strikes that could complicate Temer’s government.
Analysts say Rousseff’s lack of skill as a politician and Brazil’s tanking economy played major roles in her undoing. The economy is expected to contract nearly 4 per cent this year after an equally dismal 2015, and inflation and unemployment are hovering around 10 per cent, underscoring a sharp decline after the South American giant enjoyed stellar growth for more than a decade.
Making matters worse for Rousseff, the big graft scheme at Brazil’s state-run Petrobras oil company revealed deep-seated corruption that cuts across the political spectrum, ensnaring top officials from the Workers’ Party and the opposition alike as well as top businessmen.
Temer has been implicated by witnesses in the scandal, but he has not been charged. The impeachment drive’s main motor, former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, has been charged in the scandal and was suspended last week as speaker over allegations of corruption and interfering with justice.
While Rousseff supporters have voiced worries that Temer might try to undermine the Petrobras probe, the acting leader promised that it would continue unfettered.
The probe has become a “reference,” he said, “and as such it deserves to be followed closely and protection against any interference that could weaken it.”
Several of Temer’s Cabinet appointees have also been ensnared by corruption charges and other allegations.
His choices also raised eyebrows because they are all middle-age or elderly white men — a particularly sore point in this majority non-white country. Six women, including one black, were included in the 39 members of Rousseff’s Cabinet when she began her second term last year.
Answering claims by Rousseff the he intends to dismantle the social programs that now benefit around one-fourth of the Brazilian population, Temer insisted Thursday that the programs would not only be maintained but “perfected” under his leadership.
Still, Temer also said his first order of business will be putting the economy back on track and grappling with the government budget deficit.
“Our biggest challenge is to staunch the process of freefall of our economy,” he said. “First of all, we need to balance our public spending. The sooner we are able to balance our books, the sooner we’ll be able to restart growth.”
Temer’s inaugural address as interim president was marred by several bizarre moments, including a stampede by photographers who sprinted out of the packed event to shoot police using pepper spray on a small group of pro-Rousseff demonstrators outside the palace.
The acting president also lost his voice halfway through the speech, his face turning red and voice constricting to a croak until an aide gave him some lozenges.
The chaotic ceremony contrasted with the motto of Temer’s government — “order and progress,” which is the aspirational phrase emblazoned on the Brazilian flag.
“The expression on our flag couldn’t be more current if it was written today,” Temer said.
Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield reported this story in Brasilia and AP writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Rio de Janeiro.