Brazil’s political chameleon nears fifth term as Senate President

. Jan 31, 2019
renan calheiros senate president Senator Renan Calheiros

In 2014, Dilma Rousseff emerged victorious from what was, until that point, the nastiest presidential campaign ever seen in Brazil — filled with lies, personal attacks, and blows below the waistline. (Little did we know that, four years later, things would have gotten so much worse.) From the getgo, Ms. Rousseff’s second term was marked by crisis — politically and economically — and soon she had to deal with massive protests across the country demanding her removal. In March 2015, over 1 million people took to the streets against her, in what was Brazil’s largest street demonstrations since the 1980s.

From that period, two groups emerged as political forces. One was the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), which propelled to stardom Brazil’s “hipster” alt-right — a group of young people “defending public spending policies as tight as their jeans,” as The Brazilian Report‘s Euan Marshall described. The other was the Vem pra Rua (Come to the streets — VPR) movement, also a defender of a minimal state, but formed by older people, with fancy jobs at some of Brazil’s largest corporations.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">After helping to oust a president, these folks became relevant political actors, with many launching successful political bids last year. But once Michel Temer&#8217;s right-wing administration took over, both movements became quieter, despite the mounting evidence of corruption within the government. Now, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, VPR and MBL are back. Their target: Senator Renan Calheiros — who is going for a fifth term as Senate President.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The movements call for an open ballot for </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">the election of congressional leaders</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, scheduled for February 1. Usually, these votes are secret, which helps Senators choose a colleague who might be rejected by voters without being held publicly accountable for it. But, with the help of a hashtag and thousands of videos shared on social media, adversaries of Mr. Calheiros have managed to create some momentum to scrap the secret ballot. Their argument — which actually holds water — is that knowing who your Senator is voting for is key in choosing your congressional representative.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Late last year, these groups managed to obtain a Supreme Court injunction in their favor — but it didn&#8217;t last for long, and the Supreme Court Chief Justice </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">overruled the decision</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. Now, just one day before the vote, we still don&#8217;t know how congressional leaders will be chosen. The decision, as anything in the Brazilian Senate, will depend on backstage negotiations — a field in which Mr. Calheiros has an unparalleled skill set.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Opposition to Mr. Calheiros will present a point of order in Friday&#8217;s session to request an open ballot, but it is unlikely their plea will prosper. Unlike many common practices in the upper house, the promise of a secret ballot is expressly written in the Senate&#8217;s internal rules. </span></p> <h2>A divided MDB party</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Calheiros is challenged internally by Simone Tebet, who is still serving her first term as Senator. She pushed for a meeting on Wednesday, hoping that she would get the nod within her party — but, not only did Mr. Calheiros managed to delay the decision, Ms. Tebet was forced to step down as party whip in order to keep her bid alive. Now, Mr. Calheiros has the inside lane for a third stint as president.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While the move could help Ms. Tebet make her name in national politics, she now becomes a target of Renan Calheiros and his acolytes. Mr. Calheiros already threw hints at the press about Ms. Tebet&#8217;s connections with a former governor of her home state of Mato Grosso do Sul who was imprisoned for corruption.</span></p> <div id="attachment_13689" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-13689" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-13689" src="" alt="renan calheiros senate president simone tebet" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-13689" class="wp-caption-text">Renan Calheiros and Simone Tebet</p></div> <h2>Renan, the chameleon</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It is impossible to describe Renan Calheiros ideologically. He was a member of the Communist Party in his youth, became an operator for the super-corrupt Collor administration in the early 1990s, then was named Minister of Justice during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso era. More recently, he became pals with Lula and backed the Dilma Rousseff administration — until she wasn&#8217;t popular anymore. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">During the short-lived Michel Temer term, he managed not to be at war with the president, but kept a safe distance from the least-popular president in Brazilian democratic history. In the 2018 presidential campaign, he attended rallies with defeated Workers&#8217; Party candidate Fernando Haddad. Now, Mr. Calheiros presents himself as a true neo-liberal, who would champion the government&#8217;s austerity measures.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It is safe to say that Renan Calheiros has only one priority in his political life: Renan Calheiros.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">More than support for his </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">economic agenda</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, Mr. Calheiros has made it known to President Jair Bolsonaro that he would gladly act as a buffer to protect the president&#8217;s eldest son, Senator-elect Flávio Bolsonaro, who, even before taking office, is already battling a corruption case of his own.</span></p> <p><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Flávio Bolsonaro</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> is suspected of forcing staff members to give him part of their paychecks (which is illegal). Then, he was allegedly gotten involved in money-laundering operations to conceal that money (also illegal). Worse than that, for years Mr. Bolsonaro employed two family members of a death squad that police believes murdered Rio City Councilor Marielle Franco in March 2018.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Since steamrolling the election in October, the Bolsonaros have been quite vocal against Mr. Calheiros. After all, they were elected to replace &#8220;old politics&#8221; — and Renan Calheiros is the textbook definition of the same old horse-trading practices. But he might be the ally President Bolsonaro needs, with such an ambitious economic agenda ahead — and such a complicated son to deal with.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Senate presidency is not only a prestigious position, the job also holds immense legislative power. Senate presidents are responsible for picking which bills will go to the floor, as well as dishing out the presidencies of permanent committees — through which every bill must pass. Depending on their acquiescence towards the proposal in question, these committees can speed up or slow down the processing time of bills.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As other presidents (especially Dilma Rousseff) have learned in the past, Renan Calheiros is the ally nobody wants to have — but the enemy no one can afford to make.

Read the full story NOW!

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at