Six months of Jair Bolsonaro: the tug of war in Brasilia

. Jul 01, 2019
Six months of Bolsonaro The tug of war in Brasilia congress

Today, I would like to shed light on the power dynamics between the Legislative and Executive branches, which has been the center of numerous discussions in Brazil of late. To do so, I will first revisit a debate which has been covered by political science for decades and link this discussion to the current moment of Brazilian politics. In essence, to understand the relationship between these two branches of power, we must look at the institutional arrangement currently in force in Brazil. In other words: the rules of the political game involving Congress and the President’s office.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">During the 1980s and 1990s, the world witnessed the rise of new political actors, coming from both the end of neo-colonialism and the consolidation of democratic suffrage as the dominant regime of politics. Researchers got to work on analyzing why grand authoritarian regimes were unable to achieve success and, furthermore, which model of democracy would ensure the highest level of institutional stability. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The idea that ruptures of democratic regimes could be connected to the fragility of the political system was a novel one; for the first time, answers related to the economy, culture, and society were seen as insufficient to explain the period which had just ended. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Therefore, a discussion began on the frontiers of knowledge of political systems and their characteristics. Which one was better? Presidentialism, parliamentarism, bipartisan presidentialism (as in the U.S.), or semi-presidentialism? Which system could withstand the conflicts inherent to politics, without putting democracy in check? A number of political scholars contributed to the debate by analyzing democracies with a comparative perspective around the world. </span></p> <h2>Democracy in Brazil</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">At the time, conclusions tended toward a consensus around pure parliamentary systems (the British model) being those which best handled general political conflicts. Since then, however, some premises have been shot down, such as that parliamentary systems perform better than presidential ones. Here in Brazil, for example, using strong empirical evidence resulting from 30 years of democracy, some authors argued that our system of &#8216;<a href="">coalition</a> presidentialism&#8217; worked just as well as parliamentary regimes. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The focus of this article, however, is on the relationship between the Legislative and Executive branches of our current system. It is readily apparent that there is a latent conflict between the two powers. From the slinging of insults between President Jair Bolsonaro and the heads of Congress—Rodrigo Maia and Davi Alcolumbre—to the rejection of bills on both sides, there has been much talk about a &#8220;tightrope” to describe the liaison between the Legislative and Executive branches. And this tightrope is at risk of breaking.</span></p> <h2>Dual legitimacy</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">To understand this metaphor, there are some important aspects to bear in mind which are both structural and current. From the point of view of the Brazilian institutional arrangement (which is presidentialist and multi-partisan), there is a problem with &#8220;dual legitimacy” in the Jair Bolsonaro government. This is a concept elaborated by Spanish political scientist Juan Linz, to highlight a weakness of presidential systems. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">He ponders the issue as follows: &#8220;Lawmakers, especially when they represent cohesive and disciplined parties which offer political alternatives (to the government), may claim democratic legitimacy … Who has more legitimacy to represent the people, the president or the legislative majority?&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Mr. Linz’s case, this particular issue has been refuted by Brazilian theorists, who believe that the two powers are not in conflict in presidential regimes, instead they are complementary—as it is in their common interest to have a good relationship.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, the problem of “dual legitimacy” applies to the Bolsonaro government, as there appears to be no harmony between the <a href="">Legislative</a> and Executive branches. This is because the government believes it is not in its best interests to be associated with Congress’ way of doing politics, which it disparagingly calls “old politics.&#8221; Far from this, the president has been breaking records in issuing executive decrees and has found it difficult to pass laws which are priorities to his government. Therefore, we are witnessing a struggle between the two powers, each one claiming the support of the people in accordance with their own agenda.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The affinity that Mr. Bolsonaro has developed for signing decrees is, in fact, an attempt to govern parallel to coalition presidentialism, by which agreements between the Executive and Legislative branches are essential to approving the government’s agenda. In turn, <a href="">Congress is trying to take the lead itself</a>, revolted (or desperate) about the contempt in which it is held by the Executive branch.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As it happens, both strategies are destined to fail. Firstly, because executive decrees are constitutionally limited to administrative changes only. Furthermore, they may be vetoed by Congress, as was the case of the most recent gun decree issued by the Bolsonaro government. On the other hand, Congress’ legislative power is limited, as their laws must be sanctioned by the president. Therefore, the tug of war is never-ending.  </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, we must bear in mind that the agenda of Congress is not necessarily opposed to the agenda of the government. The pension reform is a case where there are less disagreements than agreements around its need for approval. In other matters which are less important to the country, both sides often play hardball in order to send a message to the other.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">For instance, approving the constitutional amendment to establish the obligatory budget was a message from the Congress to the Executive branch—something to the tune of “we are unhappy with your lack of participation in conducting politics.&#8221;  </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It is valid to say that the tortuous relationship between the Legislative and Executive branches is the result of a power dispute based on legitimacy, which involves ways of doing politics and each side’s agendas. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In order to get around this problem, Congress and the government are looking for other means to advance their public policies: firstly, backing proposals and turning them into bills, regardless of the Executive branch, and secondly, using the legal prerogatives of the president to make laws, essentially by decrees. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It would appear that in the last 30 years there has never been such a conflicted relationship between branches of power as we have today. There are limitations to the model of governance, as have been highlighted in this article, but it is too early to label it as inefficient, despite the timid performance of the government’s agenda in Congress. What we can infer is that important measures would have already been approved if both branches of power had been working in a more harmonious relationship.</span></p> <hr /> <p><a href=""><img loading="lazy" class="alignleft wp-image-18346 size-medium" src="" alt="" width="300" height="37" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></a></p> <h6 style="text-align: right;">Written by<br /> <a href=""><strong>Levante Ideias de Investimentos</strong></a></h6> <p>

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Felipe Berenguer

Felipe Berenguer is a political analyst at Levante Ideias de Investimentos

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