After President Dilma Rousseff lost a critical vote on her impeachment on Sunday, the spotlight turned to the man who might replace her—and the markedly different economic policies he would seek to implement. Vice President Michel Temer of the centrist Democratic Movement party (PMDB) was reelected on a 2014 ticket with Rousseff, of the center-left Workers’ Party, that promised expanded welfare programs and a major state role in the economy.
But with Brazil now facing its worst recession since 1901 and Rousseff mired in impeachment proceedings over budget irregularities, the prospect exists that a Temer government might roll back her flagship policies—a possibility that has sparked fierce debate in Brazil. In a document entitled A Bridge to the Future, presented by the vice-president in October, the PMDB proposed a broadly neoliberal approach to the economy, which posted its largest ever primary budget deficit in 2015. It advocates austerity, “structural reforms” and is committed to avoiding tax increases, except in emergencies.
The document made several sweeping proposals: removing constitutional mandates for health and education spending, revoking the indexing of benefits to the minimum wage and creating a committee to assess the future of government programs. “In recent years it is possible to say that the federal government committed excesses, in creating new programs [and] expanding existing ones,” it stated. “The situation today could certainly be less critical.”
Temer has strongly denied the accusation, made by Rousseff, that he is planning to end popular welfare programs such as the Family Allowance, which gives a basic handout to millions of the poorest families, or the social housing scheme My House, My Life. “A creeping lie,” Temer tweeted. “We will maintain all social programs.” While the PMDB is prepared to make spending cuts, Moreira Franco, the president of Ulysses Guimarães Foundation, the party’s think-tank, tells TIME, “we will not make cuts to services that compromise the survival of the poorest people.”
“The program advanced in A Bridge to the Future is certainly very different from the one that Temer defended when he was Dilma’s running mate,” notes Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. “It is a manifesto to recover the confidence of investors but, even if they were able to implement it, austerity would likely prove to be highly unpopular here.”
Rousseff’s impeachment moved a step closer on Sunday when Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies voted overwhelmingly, by 367 to 137, to send her case to the Senate. It was a victory for house speaker Eduardo Cunha, also of the PMDB, who presided over the session despite facing prosecution himself at the Supreme Court for allegedly taking millions in bribes in the Petrobras corruption scandal which has enveloped Brazil’s political establishment. Rousseff herself has not been charged with corruption but is accused of breaching fiscal discipline laws by using state bank funds to cover a budget deficit. A simple majority in the Senate will see her removed from office for 180 days while a committee produces an indictment. If that the indictment endorsed by two-thirds of the whole senate, Rousseff would be impeached and be banned from office for eight years.
In that case, Temer, a veteran dealmaker whose party has held together coalitions of various colors in the capital Brasilia for a generation, would become president. His party, which emerged out of the campaign for a return to democracy in Brazil during the 1964-1985 dictatorship, has no fixed ideology and includes both conservatives and liberals. It holds 64 of 513 house seats and has 18 of 81 senators. To govern, they would have to form a coalition, most likely with the center-right Social Democratic party (PSDB), whose candidate Aécio Neves was defeated by Rousseff in 2014.
But Temer’s time in office would likely be short lived. He is not popular, reaching only one or two percent in polls for the next election in 2018. He is also facing efforts to impeach him on the same grounds as Rousseff, a campaign supported by a majority of Brazilians. Temer is also being investigated for receiving more than $1.5 million in funds from a construction company that works with Petrobras. Temer has said the payments were legal campaign donations.