Bolsonaro buying support in Congress, and it’s all legal

. Feb 03, 2020
Bolsonaro buying support in Congress, and it's all legal House Speaker Rodrigo Maia (L), President Bolsonaro (C), and Senate President Davi Alcolumbre. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Earlier today, I addressed the changes in Brazil’s system of “coalition presidentialism” over the first year of the Jair Bolsonaro government. While the previous article was limited to the behavior of political parties within Congress and the votes of their respective members on legislative matters, now we will take a broader approach, analyzing Mr. Bolsonaro’s first year with regard to the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches.

Brazil’s political system may be classed as presidential and multi-party. These two characteristics lead to a mode of operation of the government in Congress which involves the use of coalitions, seeing as the Executive branch would never be able to achieve a majority on its own, due to the vast number of parties. Therein originates the term “coalition presidentialism,” frequently used to define Brazilian politics on a national scale.

</p> <p>Since the redemocratization of 1988, coalition presidentialism has been the rule of the political land, being the method by which governments have promoted public policies and Congress has approved them. Contrary to some forecasts and analyses of political science, coalition presidentialism has borne significant fruit over Brazil&#8217;s last 32 years of democracy. Though we are still far from our ideal, it is undeniable that the country is in better shape than it was at the time of drafting the 1988 Constitution.&nbsp;</p> <p>Evidently, the system—or the misuse of it by hidden interests—has shown faults and some negative collateral effects. It should not be assumed, however, that this is purely down to the existence of coalition presidentialism, as no system of governance or politics is immune to flaws.</p> <h2>Shaking up the system</h2> <p>In this context, the Jair Bolsonaro government has understood that <a href="">some of the practices involved in this system</a>—such as the granting of cabinet ministries to other political parties in exchange for voting support—should be made extinct. The president himself spoke repeatedly about ending the phenomenon of mutual back-scratching that has become vilified by the public. Thus, at the beginning of 2019, there was much discussion over how the government&#8217;s agenda would perform in Congress, as some practices appeared to have changed. </p> <p>What did not change, however, were the inevitable costs of approving the government&#8217;s priority bills. From a theoretical point of view, there is a price that the Executive must pay in order to perform well in Congress. This &#8220;payment&#8221; is made to representatives and senators and may involve political and/or financial concessions—all within the law. According to the literature on Executive-Legislative relations—with a particular focus on Zucco &amp; Melo-Filho, 2009—presidents tend to work to minimize these costs as much as possible, thus increasing efficiency of their government&#8217;s performance.&nbsp;</p> <p>This mechanism can be summed up in the conceptual model developed by Frederico Bertholini and Carlos Pereira, authors of the article &#8220;<a href=";pid=S0034-76122017000400528&amp;lng=en&amp;nrm=iso&amp;tlng=pt"><em>Pagando o preço de governar: custos de gerência de coalizão no presidencialismo brasileiro</em></a>&#8221; (Paying the price of governing: costs of managing coalitions in Brazilian presidentialism, 2017) and projected below. We notice that there are choices, made by the president, which have a direct impact on governability and, consequently, on the approval of projects submitted by the federal administration.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1018" height="624" src="" alt="" class="wp-image-31158" srcset=" 1018w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1018px) 100vw, 1018px" /></figure> <h2>Support comes at a price</h2> <p>In the case of the first year of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s government, we can infer that the president&#8217;s costs increased principally in relation to the release of parliamentary grants, as the use of ministries and Executive offices in exchange for support was very restrictive, or practically non-existent.&nbsp;</p> <p>These grants consist of recommendations made by politicians for the application of government funds. Representatives request a certain amount of money for carrying out improvement works or other projects in their constituencies, and receive it in exchange for supporting the government. These grants are obligatory for the federal administration, but the government may decide when the funds are effectively released.</p> <p>Recent data published by the Senate&#8217;s information system on the federal budget corroborates this point of view. In a study into parliamentary grants paid in 2019, the results showed that Mr. Bolsonaro released a record sum of grants last year—BRL 5.7 billion, surpassing the BRL 5.29 bn, adjusted for inflation, paid out by the Michel Temer government in 2018.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Whenever in need of support from Congress, the Bolsonaro government did not hesitate to pay out grants in order to further its priority proposals. The pension reform, for instance, was approved in mid-July in the House of Representatives. That month, the government set aside BRL 3.04 bn for parliamentary grants. This amount was only less than December, when parliamentary leaders pushed the administration for more grants (BRL 3.57 bn) and to release what had already been promised (BRL 1.27 bn). Parties threatened to force a shutdown if they did not receive the funds.&nbsp;</p> <p>The chart below, based on Senate data, shows the growth of parliamentary grants in recent years. The year 2019 posted records in both the amount pledged and the amount effectively paid out.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1330399"></div><script src=""></script> <p>From this unprecedented situation, we can pick out some observations for a broader analysis of the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches. Despite having a higher convergence between the agendas of both branches, it was clear that the traditional exchange of favors is still alive and well—and legally this causes no problems, as parliamentary grants are permitted and overseen by Federal Accounts Courts.</p> <p>If on the one hand, Jair Bolsonaro has not used ministerial alliances and Executive offices to curry favor with other parties, on the other, the cost of his government has been more financial than political. In general, the government believes that conducting its relationship with the Legislature in this manner is less harmful to his image, but it is worth keeping an eye on how much more the purse strings can take. </p> <p>In 2020, we will have a good notion of whether this trend was sporadic or whether it is here to stay, amid a new format of governability within coalition presidentialism—without a coalition, but constructing support every now and again by way of financial incentives for Congress.

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Felipe Berenguer

Felipe Berenguer is a political analyst at Levante Ideias de Investimentos

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