After a rough first month in office, it is fair to say that the Jair Bolsonaro administration begins now, as the new Congress takes office for the next four-year legislature. “Renewal” was the name of the game back in the October elections, and among the 54 Senate seats up for grabs, 87 percent were filled by newcomers. In the lower house, 243 of the 513 seats are now occupied by rookies. These numbers can often be misleading, however, and a large chunk of the “new” political class is formed by members of political dynasties — such as João Campos, from Pernambuco, son of the late Eduardo Campos, a former governor and presidential candidate.
For a new government filled with inexperienced officials, this new Congress could prove to be a tough challenge. After all, this will be the most fragmented legislature in Brazilian history, which is saying something. Overall, members from 30 parties begin their terms as members of Congress on February 1. In the Senate, 19 parties will be represented.
These numbers are likely to change, as politicians make use a window of opportunity they have to change political allegiances without risking the loss of their mandate. Also, as nine parties have not met the electoral threshold, therefore losing their right to public funding, those smaller parties should merge with more powerful groups.
A (slightly) more diverse Congress
While the Congress is super-fragmented, the new legislature is also marked by an increased diversity. Though the number of white male politicians remains predominant, minorities are slightly more represented this time around. Such is the case of Joenia Wapichana, who becomes the only woman of indigenous descent to ever hold a House seat.
The number of congresswomen has also gone up — from 51 to 77. And they occupy seats on both sides of the aisle, such as socialist Áurea Carolina and the hard-right Carla Zambelli.
How will Congress get along with the government
On the same day as taking office, Senators and Representatives will choose the politicians who will lead each chamber for the next two years. This election is crucial for the government, as the House Speaker and the Senate President have agenda-setting powers, they can pick which investigative committees will be shut down or continue, and also distribute seats on permanent committees — through which every single bill must pass before getting to the floor.
The names for these positions are not unknowns, with incumbent Speaker Rodrigo Maia being the clear favorite in the House, and Renan Calheiros in the Senate. But how they will get along with the Executive branch is a whole new story. Both Mr. Maia and Mr. Calheiros feel they don’t owe anything to the government. That’s because Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni — who was supposed to be the bridge between Congress and the Executive branch — has done everything in his power to boycott the two veterans.
That could prove costly, as the government took over the federal administration a month ago with bold promises of reforms. Many of which require constitutional amendments — meaning two-thirds of Congress must be on board with them. Without the help of the congressional heads, no reform will pass.
But that’s not the only reason why the government must try to see eye to eye with both the Speaker and the Senate President. These are key positions in the case of an impeachment process. The Speaker — and him alone — can decide to move forward a request to oust the president. Mr. Bolsonaro has just taken over office, but the corruption scandal involving his son Flávio has escalated quickly, and many Brasília insiders believe it’s only a matter of time until the wave reaches the doorstep of the presidential palace.
Initially, Flávio Bolsonaro was suspected of pocketing part of his staff’s salaries — which is illegal, of course. Then, we found out about his links to urban militias, which are a form of organized crime. These groups have been the core of the Bolsonaros political support — and could represent his downfall. As Dilma Rousseff has taught us in 2016, having friends at the top of the congressional structure is not desirable — it’s mandatory for a president.