"Will Jair Bolsonaro finish his term?", asked a Brazilian newspaper

Tuesday, March 26 turned out to be a microcosm of the current moment in Brazilian politics. Amid the struggle to approve the government’s pension reform proposal, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes was invited to speak before the House’s Constitution and Justice Committee (CCJ) and explain the pension overhaul plan, point-by-point. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, meanwhile, convinced his allies in the CCJ not to turn up to Tuesday’s session, causing Mr. Guedes to pull out and leave the government red-faced.

Amid this latest political fiasco, President Jair Bolsonaro—whose survival in office depends on the success of the pension reform—decided that Tuesday morning was the ideal time to go to the movies with his wife Michele, and watch the premiere of religious flick “Breakthrough.”

An overhaul of Brazil’s pension system is widely regarded as the most important job of the Jair Bolsonaro administration, but its progress has stalled, and the president himself has been identified as the project’s biggest obstacle.

Members of Congress have complained that Mr. Bolsonaro shows no personal investment in the reform process and that the liaison between his government and the political class has been almost non-existent. “There’s a lot riding on whether the government is able to pass the pension reform,” says Filipe Campante, distinguished associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. “But [the president] doesn’t want to do it, he doesn’t like having to do it, even though the political implications of it are so severe.”

While there is a much larger societal consensus around the need for an overhaul of the pension system, such a proposal will always be deeply unpopular. Politicians being forced to campaign in favor of Jair Bolsonaro’s reform have voiced their annoyance that the president himself has remained quiet on the subject. “It would appear that Mr. Bolsonaro is testing the waters, trying to see what is the least commitment to the reform he can get away with, so he can keep his fingerprints off of it,” reckons Mr. Campante.

bolsonaro movies

On a crucial day in Brazilian politics, Bolsonaro decides to go to the cinema instead

As expected, the president’s distance from his own government’s proposal has soured the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches. Dialogue and negotiation between the two is nearly non-existent, causing Congress to revolt and thrust the pension reform into doubt. The government’s plan to pass the proposal by the end of 2019 was already ambitious, but the chances of such a result are becoming increasingly remote.

As a bid to save face in Congress, the government scheduled a meeting for Tuesday morning between Economy Minister Paulo Guedes and the House’s Constitution and Justice Committee, where the pension bill is currently stalled. However, House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who engaged in a spat with Jair Bolsonaro and his family, convinced his allies not to turn up to the session, leading Paulo Guedes to pull out himself, fearing a hostile reception.

President Bolsonaro appeared oblivious to the entire incident, choosing instead to spend his Tuesday morning at the cinema. The movie he watched, Christian drama “Breakthrough,” tells the story of an American teenager who drowned in an icy lake and remained without a pulse for 45 minutes, before miraculously coming back to life. Fitting then, that Jair Bolsonaro’s own government appears to be gasping for air, and awaiting divine intervention.

Pension reform: Don’t mess with Maia

According to Mauricio Santoro, political scientist and The Brazilian Report columnist, the most striking part of the current crisis is that “of all the problems faced by the government, none of them were created by the opposition.”

Jair Bolsonaro’s spat with House Speaker Rodrigo Maia is a perfect example of this. As the leading negotiator of the pension reform bill and the man who dictates the rhythm of all proposals which pass through the lower house, he is certainly not someone the government should pick a fight with.

The rift between the two began with a disagreement between Mr. Maia and Sérgio Moro, the Minister of Justice. The Speaker accused Mr. Moro of overstepping his bounds by demanding progress on his anti-crime bill, pending before Congress. The disarray of the government is such that the conflict kept escalating and escalating, leading Rodrigo Maia to remove himself from the campaign to approve the pension reform.

The administration’s relationship with Congress is so fragile, that to top off an already disastrous Tuesday for the Bolsonaro government, the House called a late-night vote to push through a constitutional amendment bill which takes away much of the Executive branch’s control over the federal budget. The result was not closely fought either, with the government losing by 448 votes to just three.

The Honeymoon From Hell

Among the most surprising things of this entire fiasco is that the chaos has set in so quickly for the Bolsonaro government, according to Mr. Santoro. Government support is waning, while his popular approval ratings are remarkably low for a new president. Since January, the percentage of the population who class Jair Bolsonaro’s government as “great” or “good” has fallen from 49 percent to just 34—unprecedent levels for only three months in office.

On that tortuous Tuesday, Brazil’s biggest newspapers also appeared to compound the government’s sorrows, ramping up their criticism of Jair Bolsonaro. Folha de S. Paulo published a column asking “Will Bolsonaro Finish His Term?“, while Estadão printed an editorial entitled: “Missing: One President.”

“The first 100 days of a presidential term are seen as a sort of honeymoon period,” explained Mr. Santoro. “But with Jair Bolsonaro, this honeymoon started with an incident of domestic violence, and someone has trashed the hotel suite.”

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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.