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Tone Deaf Decisions Deepen Challenges for Brazil's President

Brazil's President Michel Temer arrives to deliver a pension plan proposal to National Congress leaders at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Dec. 5, 2016.

His country mired in recession, Brazilian President Michel Temer's government ordered $400,000 worth of food, including 500 cartons of Haagen-Dazs ice cream and 1.5 tons of chocolate cake, for his official plane trips in 2017 only to cancel the order hours later amid public outrage.

The ostentatious shopping list published December 27 was the latest in a series of seemingly tone deaf decisions that have put his already wobbly government on the defensive, raising questions about whether it can survive the new year.

The food flap came a month after Temer, rather than rush to comfort grieving families, spent days debating whether even to attend the memorial for the victims of a plane crash in Colombia that killed nearly an entire Brazilian soccer team.

Troubles many in Brazil

The missteps have pushed approval ratings for the 75-year-old career politician down to around 10 percent, weakening his hand as he fights corruption allegations that could force him from power less than a year after taking office following the impeachment and ouster of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff.

“Temer's team needs to get out of its comfort zone and see what is happening in the country,” said Carlos Manhanelli, chairman of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants. “Somebody should have seen that (shopping) list before it went out.”

Temer's struggles come as Brazil faces myriad challenges. The economy has contracted the last two years and is not expected to grow in 2017. Unemployment is at 12 percent and inflation over 10 percent, numbers that translate into daily announcements of job cuts and palpable angst on the streets — things that made his sweets-laden food order particularly galling.

Charges of illegal campaign financing

The most immediate risk to Temer's presidency comes from a trial in Brazil's top electoral court, which is looking at alleged illegal campaign financing in the 2014 presidential election, which featured Rousseff and Temer as running mates. If the Rousseff-Temer ticket is annulled, it could lead to new elections. Rousseff and Temer deny wrongdoing.

A Temer resignation or ouster would create new turmoil for a country still recovering from the tumultuous ouster of Rousseff.

Congress could pick a new president to finish the term through 2018, or new elections could be called. The poll leader for the 2018 elections, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is himself facing corruption charges.

Temer has said he would be ready to “appeal, appeal and appeal again” to stay on. However, analysts say his hand would likely be forced. His approval ratings are so low his administration could not survive another blow.

More troubles on deck

Also looming is the so-called Car Wash investigation into a sweeping kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras. Several top politicians and businessmen have already been jailed over the last two years.

Details of plea bargains from current and former executives of constructor Odebrecht, one of the main companies involved in the scheme, are expected to become public within the next couple months. Key ministers and even the president himself could be implicated.

“The corruption probe at Petrobras could bring down the very people that put Temer in office and also implicate him,” said Claudio Couto, a political science professor at Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Sao Paulo. “And the electoral court will be watching all that when they decide'' on the campaign finance allegations.

Temer's hope is for an economic recovery based on cutting inflation and restoring business confidence. And he's had some victories, though even those will likely sting low-income Brazilians by squeezing subsidies.

Lower interest rates coming?

Congress approved legislation to limit spending in line with inflation and his administration appears close to lowering interest rates, some of the highest in the world, which have choked new investment amid the crisis.

The general economic climate is so bad that analysts say the urgency to find solutions could help push through Temer's proposed reform of the pension system, long untouchable in Brazilian politics.

“Temer's ability to survive politically has now become intertwined with approving reforms,” said Eurasia, a risk consultancy, in a year-end report.

Staying on message, however, will also mean connecting with the average voter, something he has not been able to do.

Early mistakes

When Temer took power in May, he appointed an all-white, all-male Cabinet, drawing ire in a country where more than half the population identifies as Afro-Brazilian or mixed race. Since then, he has lost six ministers amid corruption scandals.

Then there was the ice-cream debacle. The full order included sandwiches, provolone, Brie cheese and buffalo mozzarella, as well ice-cream bars and 120 jars of Nutella spread.

“Almost buying the Haagen-Dazs at a time of general belt-tightening symbolizes a level of insensitivity that is also childish, in the way that kids have no sense of limits,” wrote Luis Fernando Verissimo, a columnist for the daily Globo newspaper.