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Bolsonaro breaks with one of Brazil’s most powerful parties

. Apr 17, 2020
mandetta rodrigo maia Speaker Rodrigo Maia (left) and Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Photo: Ag. Câmara

The decision to fire Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta amid the deadliest pandemic in a century was undoubtedly a questionable move by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond issues of public health, axing Mr. Mandetta also creates a major — and perhaps insurmountable — cleavage between his administration and the conservative Democratas party, one of the most powerful political groups in present-day Brazil and of which the former Health Minister is a member.

Moments after the firing was announced, Mr. Bolsonaro spoke to TV news channel CNN Brasil and lashed out at Democratas’ brightest star, House Speaker Rodrigo Maia. He accused Mr. Maia of conspiring against his administration, by attempting to trigger “fiscal time bombs” that would make it impossible for him to govern.

While Mr. Bolsonaro’s

diatribe seemed completely out of place —&nbsp;a pandemic that could kill hundreds of thousands of Brazilians is not the best backdrop for an institutional crisis — his suspicions are not completely unfounded. In the past, lawmakers have crippled presidents by intentionally ballooning public spending — former President Dilma Rousseff, impeached four years ago to the day, is the <a href="https://www2.senado.leg.br/bdsf/bitstream/handle/id/515616/noticia.html?sequence=1">prime example</a>.</p> <p>However, if there is one party in Brazil that Mr. Bolsonaro should not antagonize it is Democratas. The party controls both chambers of Congress for at least another year and has been crucial in the government&#8217;s liaison with lawmakers. Without <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/07/11/pension-reform-rodrigo-maia-power-brokers/">support from Mr. Maia</a> and his party colleague and Senate counterpart Davi Alcolumbre, for example, last year&#8217;s pension reform would never have gotten off the ground.</p> <h2>Picking the wrong fight</h2> <p>Not only has the president bickered with both heads of Congress, but his Covid-19 denial has cost him the support of Democratas&#8217; Ronaldo Caiado, the governor of the Center-West state of Goiás. Ex-Health Minister Mandetta&#8217;s political mentor, Mr. Caiado is also one of the most influential political leaders among Brazil&#8217;s landowner class, which has been a key source of support for President Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Now, five independent sources have confirmed that Mr. Bolsonaro is planning an assault against Democratas, by removing the party&#8217;s two remaining cabinet members: Agriculture Minister <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2019/03/09/agricultural-lobby-plans-bolsonaro-brazil/">Tereza Cristina</a> and Citizenship Minister Onyx Lorenzoni.&nbsp;</p> <p>The latter would be easy to dismiss. A sycophantic backbencher with <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/03/17/bolsonaro-creates-crisis-committee-against-covid-19/">little to show</a> for his time as a member of the Bolsonaro administration, Mr. Lorenzoni was recently demoted from his previous role of Chief of Staff and has little support within the party.</p> <p>In the case of Tereza Cristina, the government plans to accuse her of getting too close to China. However, a good relationship with the country is part of the Agriculture Minister&#8217;s job, as the Asian giant is the leading buyer of Brazilian commodities.</p> <p>Sources heard by <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> confirm that the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party and Social Democratic Party are poised to step into Democratas&#8217; place. They also mentioned the Republicans party — which once <a href="https://veja.abril.com.br/politica/ida-de-filhos-de-bolsonaro-para-republicanos-amplia-lacos-com-evangelicos/">supported the Workers&#8217; Party</a> and has ties to the controversial <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/04/25/current-influence-evangelicals-politics/">Universal Church of the Kingdom of God</a> — as among the government&#8217;s top allies. Two of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s sons, Senator Flávio and Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Carlos Bolsonaro, have recently joined the party.</p> <p>In order for the alliance to work, the president would promise to name party chairman Congressman Marcos Pereira to a Supreme Court vacancy that will open up later this year. Mr. Bolsonaro has spoken of his desire to appoint an &#8220;extremely Evangelical&#8221; justice to the country&#8217;s highest court, and one source affirmed that Mr. Pereira fits the bill.</p> <p>But completely sidelining the Democratas party could be a fatal move by President Bolsonaro. Political squabbles during the pandemic have left Mr. Bolsonaro isolated and there are at least <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/03/24/sources-political-leaders-negotiate-bolsonaros-impeachment/">17 impeachment requests lodged against him so far</a>. Rodrigo Maia, as the speaker of the lower house, has the jurisdiction to decide if and when these proceedings go ahead.</p> <h2>How Democratas became so strong</h2> <p>A force to be reckoned with in the late 1990s, especially in the poor Northeast, Democratas — then named the Liberal Front Party — lost much of its influence when the center-left Workers&#8217; Party began winning over poorer voters, making the Northeast region its own stronghold. Highly-publicized graft scandals also made the party a toxic asset for presidential candidates to the right of center, leading to discussions about a possible merger with a larger party in 2015.</p> <p>But just as the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s rise hurt Democratas badly, its recent downfall propelled the old party back to power, with the revival capped off by Rodrigo Maia&#8217;s election as House Speaker in 2016.</p> <p>Now with control over both the House and Senate, Democratas has become impossible to ignore as a political force. &#8220;The firing of Luiz Henrique Mandetta and the attacks against Speaker Rodrigo Maia show that Jair Bolsonaro is on a full-scale collision course against Democratas. It reminds me of how Dilma Rousseff broke with the Brazilian Democratic Movement party, in similar circumstances, just before she was impeached,&#8221; wrote political analyst Maurício Santoro, a columnist at <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Whether or not Mr. Bolsonaro will face the same fate as Ms. Rousseff depends on how the country negotiates its way through the Covid-19 crisis.

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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