SAO PAULO - Brazil's top electoral court started deciding Tuesday evening whether embattled President Michel Temer should be pushed out of office over allegations of illegal campaign financing in the 2014 presidential election.
The session opened with Judge Herman Benjamin, the special investigator in the case, starting to read his findings. The hearing was expected to take three days, and there is no deadline for a final ruling of the seven electoral judges.
The suit was brought after the election by the right-leaning Brazilian Social Democracy Party, whose presidential candidate, Aecio Neves, lost to the ticket of then President Dilma Rousseff and Temer as her vice presidential running mate. Ironically, the party has been a key ally of Temer since he took over the presidency after Rousseff was suspended and then impeached last year.
If the court decides the Rousseff-Temer ticket did receive illegal campaign financing, as several plea bargains have suggested, Temer mandate would be annulled and Congress would have to pick some to serve out his term through December 2018. However, the career politician whose popularity is hovering around 8 percent has said he would appeal.
Rousseff claims innocence as does Temer, who argues that his team was not responsible for the fundraising of the ticket.
If Temer is eventually pushed out of the presidency by the court, or decides to resign, Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia would take over for 30 days while Congress voted in a new leader.
The electoral court scheduled more sessions for Wednesday and Thursday, but those could be postponed if any of the seven judges asks to review the case.
Mauricio Santoro, a political analyst at Rio de Janeiro State University, said he expects the court to postpone the decision or find a way to separate Temer from Rousseff's ticket.
"Temer has built a coalition of supporters in the Supreme Electoral Court under the argument that people may not like him, but there's no consensus about who his successor should be,'' Santoro said.
Horus before the trial began, Temer's political situation deteriorated further with the arrest of a former tourism minister and close ally. Henrique Eduardo Alves was taken into custody on allegations of corruption related to the construction of a 2014 World Cup stadium in Natal.
Globo News captured images of Alves being arrested by federal police. Officials held a news conference later at which they laid out allegations that Alves and Fred Queiroz, Natal's secretary of public works, received bribes from major construction companies.
Alves, a former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, was tourism minister under both Rousseff and Temer, who assumed the presidency last year when Rousseff was removed for illegally managing the federal budget. Alves gave up the Cabinet post soon after Temer took power in May 2016.
His arrest came just a day after federal police sent Temer a list of questions in a separate criminal probe that involves the president. He had 24 hours to answer the questions, but his lawyers got an extension until Friday afternoon.
Last month, a recording emerged that apparently captured Temer endorsing the payment of hush money to former Chamber of Deputies Speaker Eduardo Cunha, another former ally. Cunha is serving a 15-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering.
Temer has denied wrongdoing and has vowed to stay in office in the face of increasing calls for him to step down.
"Temer is hanging on by the skin of his teeth,'' said David Fleischer, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Brasilia.
Also on Tuesday, Brazil's top court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, rejected a petition by Rodrigo Rocha Loures, a former Temer aide, to be released from jail.
Loures was arrested over the weekend for allegedly helping to pay off Cunha. Police released video that apparently showed Loures carrying a suitcase filled with $154,000. Should he reach a plea bargain, his testimony could further implicate Temer.