Former (and future?) Senate President Renan Calheiros

The presidential election has passed, with Jair Bolsonaro’s win threatening to shake up the traditional political order in Brazil. Many pundits and experts have drawn up potential scenarios, plotting what the future government will look like. However, another two elections will truly define the future of Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, scheduled for February 1 and 2 of 2019.

Working with a system of “coalition presidentialism,” in Brazil, the elections for the House Speaker and Senate President are just as important as picking the president. Though ignored by all but a sliver of the Brazilian electorate, these are the disputes which will dictate the success or failure of the Jair Bolsonaro government.

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the leaders in Congress. Nothing gets passed in the Brazilian legislature without the approval of the House Speaker and Senate President. They have the power to decide which bills are voted on and when. And if the leader is canny, absolutely nothing will be put to a floor vote if there is even a remote chance of it not being passed.

The House Speaker and Senate President are also responsible for dishing out the presidencies of the permanent congressional committees, another fundamental and overlooked part of the functioning of Brazilian lawmaking. Every bill must go through at least one of the permanent committees, which, depending on their acquiescence towards the proposal in question, can speed up or slow down their processing time.

Behind the leaders of the Congress, the presidents of the Committee of Constitution and Justice (CCJ) in each house are arguably the next most important figures in the legislature. Every single bill must be approved by the CCJ. Furthermore, the House Speaker decides on the opening or dismissal of impeachment processes, and in the absence of the president and vice-president, the leader of the lower house is the next in the line of succession.

The President of the Senate is also the President of the Congress as a whole, and has the power to block presidential vetoes and controls the voting on the annual budget.

Brazil saw a prime example of the power of congressional leaders during the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Having lost favor with the legislature early on, then-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha orchestrated the entire ousting process from start to finish.

Old head, or young blood?

Due to the importance of both posts, the discussion, campaigning, and negotiation surrounding the February election are already in full swing.

In the lower house, the favorite is incumbent Rodrigo Maia. Given the potential shake-up caused by Jair Bolsonaro’s election, the majority of representatives do not want a House Speaker who is explicitly allied with the president-elect. Thus, Mr. Maia emerges as the most realistic option.

Moreover, having shown his openness to a pensions reform, Mr. Maia is vociferously backed by Paulo Guedes, the president-elect’s financial guru and future Ministry of the Economy. If the government were to support another candidate, it could cause an irreparable rift between Jair Bolsonaro and Mr. Guedes.

As things stand, Mr. Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) is split into two warring factions, the traditional politicians and the young-bloods, who each seek to back someone in their image for the role of House Speaker.

Party president Luciano Bivar represents the wing which will get behind Mr. Maia, hoping to guarantee that the party will be awarded the control of the CCJ in the lower house.

Eduardo Bolsonaro—one of the president-elect sons and the most-voted representative in the new legislature—is opposed to Rodrigo Maia, claiming that he represents “old politics.” Bolsonaro Sr. is not expected to explicitly pick a side, but ignoring “old politics” could end up bringing down his government.

Mr. Bolsonaro was elected saying he would negotiate with “people, not parties,” transgressing the traditional way of doing things in Brazil. While this may actually work with some of his more social behavior-based proposals, it is a useless (and dangerous) strategy when it comes to the votes that really matter, for instance, the reform of the pensions system.

For big economic proposals, political parties take control and often “close the question”—establishing a strict party line and punishing those who do not follow it with expulsion from the party or removal from office. As such, if Jair Bolsonaro goes against these leaders, even at this early stage, they will make his presidency a living hell.

Renan, the Untouchable

In the Senate, we are guaranteed a change of hands in the president’s chair, seeing as current head, Eunício Oliveira, failed to win re-election in October.

The leading name for the job is Renan Calheiros, an ever-present figure in Brazilian politics who, despite always flying very close to the torrid sun of power, never seems to get burned. He is by far the most experienced and skilled candidate for the position, and will count on the support of his Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party, the largest in the Senate, and the Workers’ Party (PT).

A newly formed opposition bloc formed by center and center-left parties has tried to discourage Mr. Calheiros from running, but their representation in the Senate is not particularly strong.

The shrewd operator that he is, Renan Calheiros claims he is not a candidate for the job. Judging from past experience, he will only announce his candidacy at the last minute, when he is absolutely sure he is guaranteed the votes he needs to win. If he is anything less than 100 percent certain, he will put his weight behind the candidacy of his party colleague, Simone Tebet.

As it is in the lower house, one of Jair Bolsonaro’s sons has publicly opposed Renan Calheiros for the Senate presidency. This time it is Flávio Bolsonaro, who will serve his very first term in the Senate in 2019. His inexperience is showing, however, as it is common knowledge that when it comes to the Senate, Mr. Calheiros is arguably the worst enemy anyone can make.

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PowerDec 21, 2018

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BY Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall is a Scottish journalist living in São Paulo. He is co-author of A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.