Forget mayors, the House Speaker election is the race that counts

. Oct 13, 2020
house speaker election Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina could be Jair Bolsonaro's name for House Speaker. Photo: Antonio Araujo/MAPA

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This week, we take a look at the behind-the-scenes moves leading up to February’s election for House Speaker. And the crisis sparked by a divided Supreme Court.

The election that matters

Brazilians head to the polls on November 15 and 29 to select their new mayors and city councilors,

but President Jair Bolsonaro has his eyes on another election, which he sees as being much more consequential. In February 2021, members of Congress will vote to pick the new House Speaker and Senate President, and incumbents Rodrigo Maia (House) and Davi Alcolumbre (Senate) cannot run for another term — <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/09/02/bending-the-rules-to-counter-rule-bending-bolsonaro/">barring an amendment to the Constitution</a>. Therefore, this clears the path for the government to put forward its own candidates.</p> <p><strong>The key election. </strong>Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s main interest lies in the House Speaker election, as the leader of the lower house holds all the power to initiate (or block) impeachment proceedings against the president. </p> <ul><li>While the president will officially remain neutral during the election process, he is backing Congressman Arthur Lira, a high-ranking figure from the so-called &#8220;Big Center,&#8221; a loose coalition of conservative, for-rent parties that now makes up Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s congressional support base.</li></ul> <p><strong>Yes, but … </strong>Brasília correspondent Débora Álvares reports that, despite enjoying a good relationship with the Big Center as of late, Mr. Bolsonaro still doesn&#8217;t trust the congressional establishment — and may pull a curveball in the Speaker&#8217;s race. He is considering endorsing Tereza Cristina, the current Agriculture Minister, for the position.</p> <ul><li>Senior government officials told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> that Mr. Bolsonaro believes (rightly so, we may add) that the Big Center&#8217;s support is only circumstantial — and a shift in the political mood could see him held hostage to this self-serving group. That&#8217;s why he wants one of &#8220;his own&#8221; in the Speaker&#8217;s chair.</li><li>A congresswoman, Ms. Cristina is the former leader of the Rural Caucus, one of Brasília&#8217;s most powerful lobbies. She claims she does not want to leave the cabinet and enter the Speaker election — but she would, if the president asked her to. </li><li>Government sources say Ms. Cristina is frustrated with her cabinet colleagues Ernesto Araújo (Foreign Affairs) and Ricardo Salles (Environment), who have helped cause an image crisis for Brazil&#8217;s agribusiness — due to attacks on China and <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/09/21/rains-reach-brazil-pantanal-wetlands-but-damage-is-done/">recent environmental disasters</a>.</li></ul> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> The move, if confirmed, could be seen as a betrayal of the Big Center, a group that has ensured some stability to the Bolsonaro administration. Our sources say that Jair Bolsonaro could compensate Big Center officials by offering them key cabinet positions.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A split Supreme Court</h2> <p>This afternoon, Brazil&#8217;s Supreme Court will lose one of its pillars: Justice Celso de Mello, who retires after 31 years on the most prestigious bench of the country. Furthermore, this change will take place as the court undergoes a moment of deep internal division. Two recent events have widened this split between justices:</p> <ul><li><strong>Operation Car Wash.</strong> After President Jair Bolsonaro said he had &#8220;ended&#8221; the task force because &#8220;there is no more corruption in the government,&#8221; Chief Justice Luiz Fux moved to transfer all trials related to the operation from a five-justice panel — a mechanism to reduce the court&#8217;s backlog — to full-court decisions. One of the two panels in the Supreme Court has become known as the “<a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/07/02/brazil-supreme-court-anti-corruption/">Garden of Eden</a>,” due to its propensity for ruling in favor of defendants, while the chief justice himself is a known supporter of Operation Car Wash. Members of the &#8220;garden&#8221; reacted badly to the decision, calling it &#8220;nonsensical.&#8221;</li><li><strong>PCC gang leader.</strong> Over the long weekend, the Supreme Court granted a habeas corpus request to a high-ranking leader of the First Command of the Capital (PCC), the <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/01/22/pcc-brazil-uber-powerful-criminal-brotherhood-drugs/">most powerful and widespread organized crime faction in Brazil</a>. The decision, made by Justice Marco Aurélio Mello, was issued after prosecutors failed to renew the prisoner&#8217;s preventive detention request. The chief justice overturned the decision within less than 24 hours, by which time the gang leader was already at large. Justice Mello was left disgruntled by the turnaround, saying that &#8220;the chief justice is not [his] superior.&#8221;</li></ul> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> A split Supreme Court can aggravate some of the body&#8217;s biggest flaws, notably its lack of consistency and respect for precedent.</p> <ul><li>There is a running joke in Brasília, according to which Brazil has not one Supreme Court, but rather 11 — as each justice plays by their own rules. Never has this seemed so apt.&nbsp;</li></ul> <p><strong>Dangers.</strong> Meanwhile, the court has been the victim of several attacks — including from radical far-right groups operating under the auspices of the First Family (who ask for the shutdown of the court altogether). With their erratic behavior, justices spare these groups from having to discredit them.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/6lwxJckNm1V00kigZVcHwX" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Markets</h2> <p>October will be a month for tech IPOs in Brazil. Suno Research recommends investors to take part in broadband provider Triple Play’s offering if prices are up to BRL 14 per share. Triple Play has 75 percent of its network in flagship fiber-to-the-home technology and a strong presence in small- and medium-sized cities, a segment where internet penetration is growing and competitors still rely on outdated network infrastructure.</p> <p class="has-text-align-center"><strong><em>Natália Scalzaretto</em></strong></p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>New study ties informal labor to Covid-19 deaths</h2> <p>On multiple occasions, we at <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> have explained how Brazil&#8217;s (and Latin America&#8217;s) <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/07/27/understanding-latin-america-wave-informal-employment/">highly informal economy</a> contributed to its harrowing coronavirus epidemic. Without minimizing the responsibility of government authorities and their failed response to the pandemic, the truth is that millions of people simply could not afford to socially isolate. </p> <p>A new <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/mercado/2020/10/trabalho-informal-eleva-risco-de-contagio-e-morte-por-covid-19.shtml">study</a> by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro took five Brazilian cities with different proportions of informal labor and compared their Covid-19 death rates, with the results corroborating the hypothesis that unregistered workers could not stay home. For every additional 10 points in cities&#8217; informality rates, contagion rates rise 29 percent and death rates, 38 percent.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-scatter" data-src="visualisation/3999050" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3999050/embed" aria-label=""><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Looking ahead</h2> <ul><li><strong>War budget. </strong>The government still has no solution for its plan to roll out a new welfare program while simultaneously adhering to the federal spending cap, which prevents the administration from raising public spending without extra revenue. The government is considering extending the so-called &#8220;War Budget&#8221; until 2021, which was a solution pushed through by Congress to create a parallel budget for coronavirus-related spending, as a way to bypass the cap. Analysts, however, say that using that mechanism for current expenses would create a <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/10/02/how-the-coronavirus-infected-the-brazilian-currency/">confidence crisis</a> among markets.</li><li><strong>Priority list. </strong>The <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/10/07/explaining-brazil-podcast-elections-in-the-time-of-covid-19/">November municipal election</a> gives the government practically no time to push through broad reforms in 2020. Instead, the administration will focus on three priorities for Congress: passing the new regulatory framework for the gas sector, opening up the cabotage navigation market, and breaking the monopoly state-owned company Correios has over postal services, thus clearing a path for the firm&#8217;s privatization.</li><li><strong>Infrastructure.</strong> Tarcísio de Freitas, Brazil&#8217;s Infrastructure Minister, has begun a <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/colunas/painel/2020/10/tarcisio-vai-em-busca-de-padrinhos-no-congresso-para-obras-de-2021.shtml">tour in Congress</a> to gather sponsors for selected projects the administration hopes to push through to completion in 2021. One-third of his ministry&#8217;s budget will come from parliamentary grants, by which individual officials request a share of the federal budget to go toward projects in their constituencies. </li><li><strong>Vaccine.</strong> President Jair Bolsonaro has said on multiple occasions that &#8220;nobody can force anybody&#8221; to take a <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/08/05/brazil-place-in-the-race-for-a-covid-19-vaccine-podcast/">Covid-19 vaccine</a>, but Brazilians don&#8217;t seem to agree. Over 70 percent of people in four major urban centers (São Paulo, Rio, Belo Horizonte, and Recife) want a vaccine against the coronavirus to be mandatory, once it is available. However, enthusiasm for the vaccine is lower among wealthier classes.</li></ul> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>In case you missed it</h2> <ul><li><strong>Supreme Court. </strong>Celso de Mello, the longest-tenured Supreme Court justice, retires today after 31 years in Brazil&#8217;s highest court. He distinguished himself as <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/10/12/celso-de-mello-pillar-brazil-supreme-court-retires/">the court&#8217;s most fervent defender of individual liberties</a> and his peers say he will leave big shoes to fill. For his replacement, President Jair Bolsonaro went for Federal Judge Kássio Nunes, who has been endorsed by traditional political parties in Congress. A confirmation hearing is scheduled for next week, and Mr. Nunes already has a majority in the Senate&#8217;s Constitution and Justice Committee.</li><li><strong>Economy. </strong>Once heralded Brazil&#8217;s economic tsar, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes now seems to be losing prestige by the day. After publicly scolding him on multiple occasions, President Jair Bolsonaro is now considering <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/10/09/brazil-economy-minister-paulo-guedes-could-lose-power/">splitting up Mr. Guedes&#8217; fiefdom into multiple ministries</a> — recreating the Labor Ministry, and possibly the Trade Ministry, as well. That would give the president more horse-trading power with Congress. </li><li><strong>Trade deal.</strong> In a 345-295 vote, the European Parliament passed an amendment to the common EU commercial policy which was seen as a rejection of the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement signed just last year. The amendment highlights the need for ensuring fair competition and compliance with European production standards — adding that, due to environmental concerns, “<a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/10/08/eu-parliament-slams-mercosur-trade-deal-as-it-stands/">the EU-Mercosur agreement cannot be ratified as it stands</a>.”</li><li><strong>Financial inclusion.</strong> PIX, an instant payment platform created by the Brazilian Central Bank, officially opened registrations last week. The number of individual ‘keys’ issued reached roughly <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2020/10/10/pix-tourism-coronavirus-brazil-numbers-this-week/">24 million</a>. The new payment system, which will allow for instant cash transfers, begins its operation on November 16. Besides allowing near-instant transfers and payments outside of commercial working hours, the system is free to use for sending and receiving money.

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