A new era begins for Bolsonaro with multiple challenges ahead

. Feb 02, 2021
Bolsonaro has multiple challenges ahead President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

The election of the new heads of Congress ushers in a completely new era for the Jair Bolsonaro government. The importance is less to do with the figures involved — the newly elected House Speaker Arthur Lira or Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco would never have gotten to where they are without a resolute decision from the government to tilt the congressional leadership election in their favor — but more connected to the way politics is done in Brasília.

Once described by Jair Bolsonaro as veiled corruption, the system of “coalition presidentialism” — by which the sitting government dishes out benefits to allied parties in exchange for a congressional majority — is most certainly alive and well.

</p> <p>This arrangement of forces is diametrically opposed to that of the <a href="">beginning of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s term</a> in 2019. Back then, boosted by his surprise election win, the president decided to stick to his campaign rhetoric and <a href="">demonize Congress</a>, ignoring the need to nurture a support base or appoint experienced political negotiators to liaise with the House and Senate.</p> <p>The breaking point was the coronavirus pandemic. With his survival instincts kicking in, President Bolsonaro chose to <a href="">make concessions to establishment politicians</a> in a bid to brush off the immense pressure that came with his government&#8217;s disastrous handling of the health crisis.</p> <p>The president came across a golden opportunity in the shape of Congressman Arthur Lira, who sought his own moment in the sun, otherwise hogged by the all-powerful House Speaker Rodrigo Maia. Mr. Lira met with President Bolsonaro&#8217;s delegates and pledged to represent Congress&#8217; interests with the Executive branch.&nbsp;</p> <p>By gambling on an alliance with Mr. Lira, Mr. Bolsonaro could never foresee that just six months later, his new friend in Congress would be elected House Speaker in a landslide, kicking <a href="">Rodrigo Maia</a> into touch.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Bolsonaro must strike while the iron is hot</h2> <p>Indeed, the resumption of coalition presidentialism represents a completely new challenge for Mr. Bolsonaro. His task will now involve managing a heterogeneous group of allies, permanently negotiating and renegotiating hundreds of mini-agreements to satisfy all of the diffuse interests that are keeping him in power. The natural result of a congressional leadership election is a cabinet reshuffle to accommodate the new arrangement of forces in Brasília, creating a sense of satisfaction that will allow urgent legislative work to commence.</p> <p>And President Bolsonaro best be quick about it, as the favorable atmosphere in Congress can change from one day to another. Extreme social and <a href="">fiscal pressure</a> will demand votes on unpopular measures that construct a balance between relief policies and budgetary stability. Mr. Bolsonaro will have to share responsibility for these less-than-desired decisions, or he will run the risk of alienating his new allies.</p> <p>President Bolsonaro&#8217;s <a href="">window of governability</a> is likely to extend in July. If he is unable to make progress on structural reform proposals by then, economic sectors will lose their patience. The consensus among market agents is that the best-case scenario would see Mr. Bolsonaro strengthened in Congress and weakened electorally.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s allies in charge of Congress: a threat to democracy?</h2> <p>Finally, a common question asked among analysts is whether the victory of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s allies in Monday&#8217;s leadership elections may be interpreted as a threat to Brazil&#8217;s democratic institutions, in the sense that the exit of Rodrigo Maia represents the removal of a political figure who stood in the way of the president&#8217;s antidemocratic designs.</p> <p>While this is hardly a neutral narrative, having been used by Arthur Lira&#8217;s opponents in the runup to yesterday&#8217;s election, debates about Brazil&#8217;s system of checks and balances will always be legitimate.</p> <p>It is important to understand that <a href="">authoritarian impulses</a> require three factors to be successful, taking recent events in Venezuela as an example: a majority in Congress, relative economic success, and high popularity.</p> <p>While the president has improved his standing in Congress, it is important to remember that he is not affiliated to any political party, and any legislative support base he has is fragile. Meanwhile, the economy is facing huge challenges, with real unemployment hitting 20 percent of the population, and Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s popularity has taken a hit in recent opinion polls.</p> <p>Therefore, the <a href="">risk of a democratic rupture</a> remains low, as does the chance of <a href="">impeachment</a>. Monday&#8217;s results have given Jair Bolsonaro significant breathing room, but the window of opportunity will not be open for much longer. If he remains indecisive or allows Congress to shoulder the bad press for unpopular legislative measures, he is likely to face further turbulence in the second half of the year.

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Leonardo Barreto

Leonardo Barreto holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Brasília and is a director at consulting cabinet Vector Análise.

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