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Bolsonaro must conform to Congress to make it to 2022

. Feb 11, 2021
Bolsonaro is hoping to take advantage of a rare moment of peace in his relationship with Congress. But how long will this last? Bolsonaro (center) applauds as House Speaker Arthur Lira talks during an event in the presidential palace. Photo: Alan Santos/PR

After months of instability and murmurs of impeachment circulating in the corridors of Brasília, President Jair Bolsonaro is trying to turn over a new leaf for the remainder of his term, hoping to put squabbles with the Supreme Court and Congress behind him. The order of business is to seize the temporary feeling of harmony in the Legislative branch and try to push through an agenda that will yield positive headlines and get investors excited about Brazil.

Both chambers of Congress have been somewhat pacified after the recent leadership elections, with allies of the president winning the races for House Speaker and Senate President. However, no-one knows how long this relative calm among the branches of government will last. If the past two-plus years of Mr. Bolsonaro’s term are anything to go by, the next crisis is likely to be right around the corner.

</p> <p>In the week that kicked off the legislative year, the government presented lawmakers with a list with 35 priorities for 2021, 20 of which concerned improving the domestic business environment. Reforming the country&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/07/22/brazil-promised-tax-reform-overhaul-more-tweak/">byzantine tax code</a> and its bloated public sector were also mentioned, with four and three proposals each.</p> <p>By using a simplified measurement of effectiveness, I have analyzed exactly how much progress the government has made in implementing its legislative agenda during this presidency. Bills in their early stages are assigned low scores, which increase as they progress through Congress, before finally being signed into law.</p> <p>Despite being in office for over two years, the government has only made progress on 27 percent of its priorities.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Banking on the support of the Big Center</h2> <p>For this second half of his term, President Bolsonaro is hoping that his recent alliance with the so-called &#8220;<a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/07/31/brazil-big-center-2018-president/">Big Center</a>&#8221; — a group of traditional, rent-seeking forces&nbsp;in Congress — may give him some legislative impetus. However, he has yet to prove he is able to lead a coalition.</p> <p>Regardless, lawmakers appear willing to meet the president halfway and have shown their enthusiasm for a more business-friendly legislative agenda.&nbsp;</p> <p>Newly-elected House Speaker Arthur Lira decided that his top priority would be a bill establishing the <a href="https://valor.globo.com/politica/noticia/2021/02/10/camara-aprova-projeto-de-autonomia-do-banco-central-por-339-votos-a-114.ghtml">formal independence of Brazil&#8217;s Central Bank</a>, something that is very dear to Economy Minister Paulo Guedes. Across the hall, Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco is expected to push forward a proposal to create an investment fund for agriculture.</p> <p>These bills should be interpreted as a token of confidence in the president —&nbsp;who is now expected to retribute with a heavy dose of horse-trading politics.</p> <h2>Crunch time as elections loom</h2> <p>The true tests of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s grip on his <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/02/jair-bolsonaro-bedfellows-congress-deliver-results-how-long/">newfound coalition</a> will come later — as structural reforms come to the forefront. These projects are set to pit a wide range of opposing interests against one another and will demand intense political action by the government in conjunction with the heads of Congress.</p> <p>Though how well Congress will treat the president will depend on how lawmakers see his chances of re-election — and their own.</p> <p><a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/09/02/bending-the-rules-to-counter-rule-bending-bolsonaro/">Loopholes in Congress&#8217; rulebook</a> allow the Senate President and House Speaker to get an additional two years in charge of each chamber, providing the terms occur in different legislatures — i.e., after an election, which will be the case in 2023, when a new Congress takes office and Messrs. Lira&#8217;s and Pacheco&#8217;s terms come to an end.</p> <p>If they believe their chances of winning another term are tied to the re-election of Mr. Bolsonaro, they will fight tooth and nail for his interests. If not, it will be a whole different ball game.</p> <p>Due to the level of tension Mr. Bolsonaro likes to maintain in his relationship with other branches of government, even his allies are doubtful about whether to back him in the 2022 election. That decision should be made by the end of August 2021, when parties will start defining their electoral strategies for next year.</p> <p>And this discussion brings forth another debate. If Brazil makes it to 2022 without any democratic ruptures, it will be safe to say that established institutions prevailed, in spite of President Bolsonaro&#8217;s antidemocratic tendencies. But will that mean the president will be ousted before that point? Or will he adapt to the political game?</p> <p>For the sake of stability, one hopes for the latter.

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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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