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Bolsonaro’s new bedfellows deliver results. But for how long?

. Jun 02, 2020
congress old politics brazil jair bolsonaro President Jair Bolsonaro broke with his promise to go against "old politics." Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Last week, the Brazilian lower house approved President Jair Bolsonaro’s job-saving program allowing companies to cut the working hours and salaries of their employees, who will in turn receive compensation by the government. The vote was considered a success by the administration, as its governing coalition was able to strike down a proposal raising the cap for compensation, which would have cost the already cash-strapped government an extra BRL 23 billion (USD 4.3 billion). The bill’s approval was made possible by Mr. Bolsonaro’s newly-celebrated alliance with the so-called “Big Center” of Congress, whose support has given the president a lifeline in office.

Unlike the name may suggest, the Big Center is not a group of middle-of-the-road politicians,

but rather a loose coalition of right-wing forces belonging to for-rent parties, that will throw their weight behind any administration, regardless of ideology, if the price is right. Typically, representatives of the Big Center are handed second- and third-level positions in the Executive, allowing them to oversee big budgets in areas that offer potentially great electoral returns.</p> <p>No Brazilian administration has managed to enjoy any sustained congressional success without keeping the Big Center onside, as its members make up around 250 of the House&#8217;s 513 seats. From the outset, Jair Bolsonaro tried to break the mold, rallying against horse-trading deals with faceless parties, a practice he dismissed as &#8220;old politics.&#8221; However, backed into a corner over mounting political and <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/">health</a> crises, Mr. Bolsonaro has been forced to play ball. With the Big Center in his corner, the president is now set to protect himself against any impeachment or indictment requests coming his way.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-parliament" data-src="visualisation/2635783" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/2635783/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>But their support does not come cheap. Mr. Bolsonaro had to give up control of three highly disputed areas: the National Fund for Education Development (with a <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/governo-nomeia-chefe-de-gabinete-de-senador-do-centrao-para-presidencia-do-fnde-24456155">budget</a> of BRL 50 billion), the National Department of Projects against Droughts (BRL 1 billion), and the Regional Development Ministry&#8217;s Mobility Department, which sets public guidelines for all urban and regional development projects within the scope of the federal government.</p> <p>The government is also set to give control of the Northeast Bank to a group led by former Congressman Valdemar Costa Neto —&nbsp;a notoriously corrupt politician who did time in jail for his part in a <a href="https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2013/11/18/what-is-brazils-mensalao">vote-for-cash scheme operated in Congress</a> by the Workers&#8217; Party in the early 2000s.</p> <h2>Reactions to the new alliance</h2> <p>Opinion polls show that Brazilian voters frowned at Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s U-turn, with 67 percent rejecting his alliance with the Big Center. In the same poll, 64 percent of the electorate said the president has not kept his campaign promise to promote a &#8220;new era&#8221; in politics, but rather giving in to the cronyism he spoke out against for so long. As pro-Bolsonaro congressman Luiz Lima admitted during a debate on cable news channel GloboNews, &#8220;it shows that the establishment has won.&#8221;</p> <p>The move was not even a consensus among the president&#8217;s hardcore supporters. One member of Congress that is close to the government —&nbsp;and was even courted for the vice-president spot alongside Mr. Bolsonaro in 2018&nbsp;—&nbsp;showed reservations: &#8220;Having the Big Center with us is a loss. It could compromise the president&#8217;s image with his electoral base, especially those who voted for him thanks to his anti-corruption positions. But it has an upside, such as giving us more muscle to pass structural reforms and making a re-election bid more possible. There are good lawmakers in this group, but it&#8217;s impossible to deal with their leaders,&#8221; said the congressman.</p> <p>But the rapprochement found no opposition from the government&#8217;s military wing, which is among the largest stakeholders in the Bolsonaro administration. As a matter of fact, the alliance would not happen without their blessing. &#8220;I don&#8217;t believe a disagreement with the military will happen. The generals are very much in control of the government. They meddle in every subject,&#8221; explains political scientist Erich Decat, partner and analyst at brokerage firm XP.</p> <p>A potential clash, if any, might come from the Economy Ministry. The Big Center&#8217;s pork-barrelling style of politics goes against the austerity principles of hardcore Friedmanite Paulo Guedes, who is left in a Catch 22. Without the Big Center, there is little chance of passing his economic reforms. But with them, it will be hard to cut public spending in key areas with massive budgets.</p> <h2>The race for speaker</h2> <p>If it survives until then, this alliance will be put to the ultimate test in 2021, when members of Congress must elect a new House Speaker. Past experiences show that the Big Center tends to implode during this process, with several internal forces vying for the job. Among those in line to replace incumbent Rodrigo Maia are Arthur Lira, Aguinaldo Ribeiro, and Marcos Pereira — all nominative members of the Big Center.</p> <p>For the government, having the House Speaker in their pocket is vital. As the maximum authority of the House of Representatives, the speaker decides which bills go to vote and when. Whoever sits in that seat has the power to make life very difficult, or very easy, for the president <em>du jour</em>. However, the election process is unlikely to run smoothly for the Bolsonaro administration, thanks to the warring factions within the Big Center.</p> <h2>Keeping their noses clean</h2> <p>Another factor to bear in mind when analyzing the alliance between the Bolsonaro government and the Big Center is that the group&#8217;s backing is likely to be confined to the grounds of Congress.</p> <p>The sitting administration is currently in a heated feud with the Supreme Court over investigations into President Bolsonaro and some of his most prominent supporters. While the Big Center&#8217;s alliance means it should give the government the necessary votes to block a potential indictment against Mr. Bolsonaro, these lawmakers are unlikely to wade into the war of words with the Supreme Court, for fear of being put under the microscope themselves.

 
Brenno Grillo

The Brazilian Report's correspondent in Brasília, 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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