Bolsonaro’s ineffectiveness creates de facto parliamentarism

. May 10, 2019
maia bolsonaro congress Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Speaker Rodrigo Maia

Brazilian philosopher Roberto Romano once compared Brazil’s presidency to a giant with clay feet. “He is mighty and all, but his power is also fragile. Without Congress to support him, the giant will crumble,” he said. We’re seeing that on full display under President Jair Bolsonaro. After shunning Congress, his administration has been collecting defeat upon defeat since the legislative year began, on February 1.

The latest blow came as the Special Budget Committee decided to take Brazil’s money laundering enforcement agency (Coaf) from under Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s jurisdiction, and put it back under the purview of the Economy Ministry, as it has been in previous administrations. Mr. Moro’s decision to join the cabinet had been conditioned to his control of Coaf—a key element in his fight against corruption.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On the same day, the committee voted to limit the role of Brazil&#8217;s tax authority in criminal investigations, and House Speaker Rodrigo Maia promised to contest the president&#8217;s brand new decree loosening gun ownership rules.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-full wp-image-17260" src="" alt="congress v. bolsonaro" width="1200" height="800" srcset=" 1200w, 300w, 768w, 1024w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1200px) 100vw, 1200px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">For most of his political career, Mr. Maia has been known as a mild-tempered and loyal politician, which he proved during the Michel Temer administration. In 2017, when the president was cornered by multiple corruption allegations—including leaked audio clips of him negotiating hush money to an imprisoned ally—Mr. Maia stood by him. At that point, the slightest effort from the speaker to oust the head of state would have been successful. Still, Mr. Maia stuck to his word of supporting Mr. Temer.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Now, however, the speaker makes sure to stick it to Mr. Bolsonaro at every possible turn. He even said this week—only five months into Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s term—that he and his Democratas party could back São Paulo Governor João Doria in the 2022 presidential race. It is certainly not a good sign when, after only 10 percent of one&#8217;s term, the political top brass is already talking about replacing you.</span></p> <h2>A de facto parliamentary system</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Since Brazil returned to democratic rule, one group has enjoyed outstanding power in Congress: the so-called &#8220;Big Center.&#8221; As characterized by political scientist Mauricio Santoro, this cadre is </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">formed by politicians</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> who &#8220;are usually not hardcore ideologues, but pragmatists who are willing to negotiate with any president in exchange for pork-barrelling benefits.&#8221; This group traditionally used its size—it currently occupies almost half of House seats—to threaten administrations and leverage more power. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Last year, with the meteoric rise of Jair Bolsonaro and a legion of rookie congressmen, it would seem that the Big Center had lost its power. The new president promised to break with the old ways of politicians in Brazil, saying he wouldn&#8217;t negotiate with Congress. More than that, Mr. Bolsonaro equated congressional negotiations with corruption—saying that he wouldn&#8217;t end up in jail like two of his predecessors by playing ball with the House.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But the aggressive rhetoric made the Big Center realign itself behind Speaker Maia. Now, the group prefers a different course of action from years before: replacing the president&#8217;s agenda with that of Congress.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In a recent political meeting, Mr. Maia talked about ending presidential provisional decrees (which, like regular decrees, come into effect immediately, but must be ratified by Congress and take up the legislative agenda), and argued that Congress should control the federal budget—not the Executive branch. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Senate recently passed a bill </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">restricting the control of the Executive branch over the federal budget</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. Essentially, it would force the government to honor investments proposed by lawmakers, which currently can be deferred to future budgets. If it passes in the House, the government will effectively control only 3 percent of the annual budget.</span></p> <h2>Presidential cabinet at risk</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">When presidents take over and reshuffle the cabinet—changing the number of ministries or their responsibilities—they must do so by passing new legislation. And they usually do it through <a href="">provisional decrees</a>. After stepping in as president, Jair Bolsonaro reduced the number of ministries by merging several of them. And now, it is unclear whether the changes will stick.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s provisional decree will expire on June 3. Usually, that&#8217;s a safe margin for any government to confirm the changes and move on, but as the sitting administration is staging a tug of war with Congress, parties are threatening to let the decree expire. In theory, that would change the outlook of the government back to what it was under former President Michel Temer, with a whopping 39 cabinet ministries. But we would be in uncharted waters—and the full implications remain unknown.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The president agreed to recreate two ministries, which were traditionally used as pork-barreling tools by parties. The Ministry of Cities and Ministry of National Integration oversee infrastructure projects with great visibility for politicians. Allies in Congress would be able to appoint the new cabinet members.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But parties are still reticent to fully back the government. Unless President Bolsonaro decides to really engage in politics, Mr. Maia will gradually turn Brazil into a de facto parliamentary system. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Perhaps, however, that ship has already sailed.

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.

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