How much support does Bolsonaro have in Congress?

. Jun 17, 2020
How much support does Bolsonaro have in Congress? From left to right: House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, President Jair Bolsonaro, and Senate President Davi Alcolumbre. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

As mentioned here several times, the characteristics of Brazil’s political-institutional regime — especially since the 1988 Constitution — make the costs of governing very high indeed. That is why I want to address the relationship between the government and the so-called “Big Center” through a more holistic view of Brazilian politics. In short, governability is understood as the efficacy of promoting a given administration’s agenda in Congress, where laws and public policies are proposed and discussed. In the case of Brazil, the favorable environment for the creation of several political parties — which leads to hyper-fragmentation in legislative spaces — among other conditions, have made it practically impossible for the president’s party to wield a majority of seats in either chamber of Congress.

</p> <p>Clearly, having a majority in the legislature ensures the <a href="">smooth functioning</a> of an administration&#8217;s programmatic agenda. In parliamentary systems, for instance, holding a majority is a prerequisite to appoint a prime minister and form a government. As it happens, due to the various representatives <a href="">elected by dozens of parties</a> in Brazil, there is a need for the Executive to form a coalition that is often heterogeneous and barely aligned in ideological terms.&nbsp;</p> <p>Specialized literature on the subject has always pointed toward the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party as the <a href="">pivotal force in government coalitions</a>. From Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) to Michel Temer (2016-2018), presidents who had the MDB party in their corner were able to achieve congressional majorities. In the 2018 elections, however, the party did not perform well, reducing its ranks, particularly in the House of Representatives. Thus, another group has taken the lead as the anchor of majority coalitions: the so-called Centrão, or &#8216;<a href="">Big Center</a>,&#8217; a hodgepodge group of barely ideological right-leaning parties that has gained strength since the election of Eduardo Cunha as House Speaker in 2015.&nbsp;</p> <p>This group includes around nine or ten fixed center-right and right-wing parties. Larger groups such as the Democratas (DEM) party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), and the MDB party itself opt to distance themselves from the group — often voting alongside them, but renouncing the &#8216;Big Center&#8217; label.&nbsp;</p> <h2>How big is the Big Center?</h2> <p>In a <a href="">previous column</a>, I explained the reasons that led President Jair Bolsonaro to seek out the support of the Big Center and, of course, the reasons why this group decided to join the government&#8217;s support base in Congress. After all, it takes two to tango. However, with this new-found alliance, how many votes can the Bolsonaro administration count on out of 513 members of the lower house?</p> <p>Considering the strong whip of <a href="">Brazil&#8217;s political system</a> — the vast majority of representatives vote according to their party line — it is fair to suggest the government will enjoy around 85 percent loyalty from members of Congress coming from Big Center parties. Therefore, it remains for us to analyze which parties have fully tried to consolidate the alliance. At this point, we should consider those parties that have received — or are set to receive — medium and high-level positions in the federal government in exchange for their support.</p> <p>So far, this encompasses the PSD, the Liberal Party (PL), Progressistas (PP), Republicans, and the Avante party. Among the first offices handed out was the directorate general of the National Department of Works Against Droughts, awarded to Fernando Leão, an affiliate of the Avante party, by way of nomination from the leaders of the PP. The latter was also given the presidency of the National Fund for the Development of Education (FNDE), which was delegated to Marcelo Lopes da Ponte, chief of staff of PP leader Senator Ciro Nogueira.&nbsp;</p> <p>Within the FNDE, a former advisor to PL&#8217;s whip in the lower house was appointed to the fund&#8217;s Educational Actions Board. The National Health Foundation (Funasa) went to the PSD, while important offices in the Office of the Chief of Staff were filled by nominations by the Republicanos party. The Brazilian Labor Party is awaiting government negotiations to receive its second and third-tier appointments in the federal administration.</p> <p>The <a href="">logic of these nominations</a> directly concerns budgetary decision-making. Almost all of the above agencies enjoy vast budgets. Moreover, controlling these areas is of interest to the parties, especially for electoral purposes — in the hope that the available money will not be used for shady and antirepublican ends. Those who are appointed by political parties tend to favor requests made by the same political group.&nbsp;</p> <p>From a simple calculation, taking 85 percent of the parties which have been given government offices plus Mr. Bolsonaro’s original base, we arrive at a total of 180 representatives who would, in theory, be part of the government’s coalition. This is already enough to block a potential impeachment case against the president, as doing so would require only 171 members of Congress to be against the request. The amount represents one-third of House seats, which also guarantees a good initial margin for important votes for the government.&nbsp;</p> <p>As a result of the president&#8217;s lack of a conciliatory attitude, it is unlikely that historically more &#8220;moderate&#8221; and politically important parties — such as the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, DEM, or MDB — will join the support base that is being formed. With one eye on 2022, these parties do not see rapprochement with Mr. Bolsonaro as being profitable.&nbsp;</p> <p>Thus, the government will still have to hold individual negotiations for certain votes, as was the case in the first year of the president’s term. However, as history shows us, having a coalition — even if it is not a majority — gives greater political strength to the Executive branch. At the same time, it is clear that by hitching a ride with the Big Center the chance of dishonest practices and corruption increases, a matter that is so dear to the president’s image.

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Felipe Berenguer

Felipe Berenguer is a political analyst at Levante Ideias de Investimentos

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