RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s top electoral court cleared President Michel Temer on Friday night of claims that he violated campaign finance laws, lifting a critical burden on the deeply unpopular leader as he resists calls to resign over a simmering graft scandal.
Judges on the Superior Electoral Court, which oversees federal elections, ruled 4 to 3 in Mr. Temer’s favor in a case that would have opened the way for him to be unseated as president if he had lost. The court also opted to significantly narrow the case’s scope to exclude a trove of testimony detailing how Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction giant, illegally financed the 2014 ticket on which Mr. Temer was the running mate of Dilma Rousseff, the former president.
Mr. Temer, 76, a centrist who has drifted to the right, rose to power just a year ago after Congress removed Ms. Rousseff, a leftist and the first woman to become president in Brazil, over claims that she manipulated the budget to conceal economic problems. Though they are now adversaries, both Mr. Temer and Ms. Rousseff insisted that they had not taken illegal campaign donations. Judges on the electoral court who are largely supportive of Mr. Temer or were appointed by him argued to keep him in office.
With Mr. Temer’s approval ratings falling into the single digits as he scrambles to quell protests on the streets of Brazilian cities, the electoral court’s maneuvering is igniting a debate over the functioning of the country’s branches of government, with corruption scandals hitting not just the president but members of his cabinet, the leaders of Congress and prominent members of the judiciary.
“The ruling shows that Brazil’s institutions are not working that well,” said David Fleischer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Brasília. “This was a special case where they decided not to include the really damaging evidence. It’s very bad for Brazil because the judiciary is getting a very dirty face.”
Despite the ruling, Mr. Temer remains on the defensive after a scandal exploded in May in which a beef tycoon secretly recorded a conversation with the president about obstructing anticorruption investigations.
Some members of Mr. Temer’s coalition, including legislators from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, have signaled that they are preparing to break with Mr. Temer. The president also faces scrutiny over other matters, including claims he negotiated a $40 million bribe in 2010 for his centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. Mr. Temer denies the accusations, and Brazilian law is thought to prevent sitting presidents from being investigated for such acts committed outside their terms in office.
Still, in a show of defiance, Mr. Temer refused on Friday to answer dozens of questions from the Federal Police, an investigative force similar to the F.B.I. The questions were largely about his ties to food-processing executives who have negotiated a plea deal revealing an intricate bribery scheme and to a top aide arrested after accepting a suitcase holding more than $100,000 in cash related to the scheme.
Judges on the electoral court who voted against Mr. Temer lamented the outcome of the case. Even excluding the testimony about illegal financing by Odebrecht, they cited as evidence millions of dollars of payments made to the 2014 campaign in exchange for contracts with the national oil company, Petrobras.
“As a judge, I refuse to be a gravedigger of living evidence,” said Antonio Herman Benjamin, the judge who oversaw the case and voted against Mr. Temer. “I can even take part in the funeral, but I won’t carry the coffin.”
Still, others on the court took a different view. In his televised closing argument, Napoleão Nunes Maia Filho, 71, a poet and a judge on the electoral court who himself is ensnared in graft scandals, went off on an unusual tangent in which he expressed his desire to see his detractors feel the “ire of the prophet.”
Judge Maia Filho then made a slicing gesture with his hand imitating a decapitation, before apologizing and casting his vote in Mr. Temer’s favor.
The ruling is fueling new doubts about the efficacy of Brazil’s electoral courts, which absorb hundreds of millions of dollars each year to oversee a system permeated with corruption. Míriam Leitão, one of Brazil’s most prominent columnists, called the deliberations of the top electoral court a “show of nonsense.”
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