Brazil’s Vote-Counting Genius Sees No Chance Temer Put on Trial

  • Chief of staff keeps records on lawmakers going back 20 years
  • Mix of charming persuasiveness, hard-hitting favor-collecting

Brazil's President Temer Charged With Corruption

Eliseu Padilha has made a career of sussing out how the votes will stack up in Brazil’s rough-and-tumble Congress. He has an uncanny knack, friends and foes agree, for predicting final tallies.

So when he declares there’s no chance -- none -- that enough lower-house deputies will act to force his boss, President Michel Temer, to face criminal charges, it’s worth noting. As Padilha sees it, the motion won’t get even one-third of the 342 votes needed to allow the case brought by the country’s chief public prosecutor to proceed to trial.

Eliseu Padilha in his office in the Planalto Palace.

Photographer: Srgio Lima/Bloomberg

Of course, it helps when you can influence the count. In the two decades that he’s worked for Temer, Padilha has employed his special mix of charming persuasiveness and hard-hitting favor-collecting to secure wins for Temer and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

The biggest victory? No doubt Dilma Rousseff’s ouster last August, which propelled Temer into the presidency of Latin America’s largest country. The biggest challenge? That’s still ahead: ensuring Temer, an embattled leader whose popularity rating is in the single digits, isn’t the second president to be impeached in less than a year. Yet even political adversaries figure Padilha stands a good chance of pulling that off.

“Being in the opposition would be easier if he weren’t in government,” said Miro Teixeira, a lawmaker in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies.

An accountant and lawyer by training, Padilha is famous in Brasilia for his record-keeping and precision. He has a library of binders archiving almost every vote any lawmaker has ever made during the past 20 years, in committee or on the floor, along with notes about legislators’ families, religions, social-media posts and, importantly, plum assignments requested and chits called in.

Fans hail him as a genius. Detractors dismiss him as a horse-trader. He’s humble about what he does. “It’s just politics,” he said from his office in the presidential palace.

Michel Temer

Photogrpaher: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Affection, Threats

As for Temer, he views his chief of staff as so key to keeping the wheels turning that he tries to make sure the two of them aren’t out of the country at the same time. Padilha is “a great political operator,” said Benito Gama, a leader of the Brazilian Workers Party. Opponents seem to like the guy, or at least respect how he operates. “Padilha uses more affection than threats,” Teixeira said.

A snappy dresser with thinning, slicked-back hair and rimless reading glasses, the 71 year-old Padilha described his task in the halls of the National Congress as “mapping the votes -- it’s the difference between flying blind and having a flight path.”

Truth be told, he doesn’t only map votes, he haggles for them. He explained in a recent speech to bank managers how he works in a system where trading perks for ballots is routine.

‘It Won’t Stand’

It was when he was rounding up lawmakers for Rousseff’s impeachment, he told the bankers, and Progressive Party members were on the fence. Their price wasn’t too steep -- party chieftans wanted control of the health ministry -- though Padilha said he was concerned they wouldn’t be able to provide a candidate of adequate stature. But if they could guarantee all 40 of their deputies would back the measure to kick Rousseff out, well, he’d settle.

Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot

Source: AFP via Getty Images

The party delivered. Rousseff was booted. The chieftans got what they asked for and more, with one member installed as health minister and another as head of the state bank.

Padilha doesn’t always hit his mark, of course. A notable defeat occurred last week, when a Senate committee rejected Temer’s measure to loosen decades-old labor laws, a big blow to the president’s agenda. A senator who had promised to cast a ballot in favor did the opposite. Padilha wasn’t happy.

“This was not what was agreed. It won’t stand,” he said, scowling as the results came in to his office. Within a day, two allies of the wayward senator had lost their government jobs. Padilha isn’t saying whether that was retribution, but he’s also not denying that it was.

In the past week, Temer’s hold on power has seemingly become more precarious than ever. Chief Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot filed documents at the Supreme Court on Monday accusing the president of what’s called passive corruption, including taking a bribe via an intermediary, a charge leveled in connection with the sprawling Operation Carwash investigation. Temer has denied the charge and blasted Janot as unethical.

The president has already begun preparing his defense ahead of congressional committee hearings, according to a senior aide who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Handy Binders

Padilha himself has been caught up in Carwash. He is one of dozens of high-ranking government officials and senior politicians now under investigation after Supreme Court Judge Edson Fachin authorized new probes last month. Prosecutors are looking into allegations that Padilha negotiated off-the-books campaign donations. He denies wrongdoing and said he has faith in the system. “I trust the Brazilian institutions and will exercise to the fullest my right to a defense.”

Born and raised in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Padilha, whose six children with three wives range in age from 3 to 49, still keeps an office in the state capital of Porto Alegre. He met Temer in Brasilia in 1995, when the future president was party whip in the lower house, and soon began filling up his binders.

They’re coming in handy again. Deputies will probably consider the Temer-trial measure in July. Padilha said he has already calculated the outcome of what he views as a contest between the executive branch and the powerful federal prosecutors’ office.

“It’s become a battle over votes for Temer or Janot,” Padilha said. He’s not sweating it. “Janot won’t get more than 210.”

(An earlier version corrected the number of votes Padilha expects Janot to obtain.)

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