Jair Bolsonaro fully embraces “old politics”

. Jun 11, 2020
The Brazilian president had promised not to exchange cabinet positions for support. By recreating the Communications Ministry, he is doing just that. Jair Bolsonaro in a meeting with PSD leaders — the party now controls the Communications Ministry. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Elected president thanks to an anti-politics wave, Jair Bolsonaro promised to end one of the most vilified forms of coalition-making in Brazil: horse-trading politics. In an immensely fragmented parliament (30 parties are currently represented in Congress), governments simply cannot govern without forming broad, oft-heterogeneous coalitions. And the currency used in these negotiations is traditionally cabinet positions and other government offices. Parties would lend their support in Congress in exchange for the opportunity to oversee massive budgets which could enhance their electoral capital. The problem with that arrangement is that, often, parties would siphon public funds to finance their campaigns and their leaders’ lavish lifestyle — as anti-corruption probe Operation Car Wash revealed in recent years.

Less than halfway into his term, however, Mr. Bolsonaro tossed his campaign promises aside and is embracing these same practices — which he used to disparagingly call “old politics.”

He has begun distributing second- and third-tier positions to parties of the so-called &#8220;<a href="">Big Center</a>&#8221; — a group of ideology-free parties ready to support the government <em>du jour</em> for the right price. So far, the offices offered by the president were attractive — such as control over the BRL 50-billion National Fund for Education Development — but were also low-profile. </p> <p>This changed on Wednesday, when the president announced a cabinet reshuffle, dismembering the Science and Technology Ministry and recreating the Communications Ministry, handing it to the politically promiscuous Social Democratic Party (PSD).</p> <p>The PSD epitomizes the &#8220;<a href="">Big Center</a>&#8221; like few others. At the time of its foundation, almost a decade ago, party chairman Gilberto Kassab — a former São Paulo mayor — said the party would &#8220;not be left-wing, right-wing, nor centrist.&#8221; That was, as a matter of fact, quite accurate. With ease, the PSD went from supporting the center-left administration of Dilma Rousseff, to right-wing former President Michel Temer, and now far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>The president&#8217;s supporters have frowned at his U-turn, with 67 percent of voters claiming to be against his alliance with the Big Center. But in an increasingly toxic political environment, Mr. Bolsonaro is trying to protect himself from a possible indictment or impeachment request. If he can whip 171 of 513 votes in the House, he will be able to stay in office until at least 2022.</p> <h2>Why is the Communications Ministry so important?</h2> <p>No Brazilian network owns the channel on which its programs are broadcast. All terrestrial TV frequencies belong to the state and are leased by way of concession deals for determined amounts of time — which can be extended over and over again. And the Communications Ministry must greenlight all of these concessions — a powerful bargaining chip in a country where politicians are major media owners.</p> <p>Over several administrations, the Brazilian government has out handed thousands of <a href="">concessions in exchange for political support</a>. During the 1987-1988 elaboration of the Constitution, then-Communications Minister Antônio Carlos Magalhães (himself a media owner) distributed 1,028 licenses over his four years in the job — one-quarter of them coming in the month prior to the vote on the final text of the Constitution. The aim was to preserve the interests of the group in power, which included — but was not limited to — extending the presidential term from 4 to 5 years.</p> <p>A similar incident occurred during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s era. According to Octavio Pieranti, a researcher at the University of Brasília, 87 politicians were granted control over 268 media concessions in exchange for support of an amendment allowing the president to run for re-election.</p> <p>In October last year, Mr. Bolsonaro suggested he could use the federal government&#8217;s power over TV and radio concessions to retaliate against TV Globo, which had broadcast a report suggesting that the president&#8217;s family could be linked to the 2018 assassination of Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Marielle Franco, reports which were later found to be inconsistent. Globo’s concession to operate television frequencies expires on April 15, 2023 — and it must be reviewed by the president. “Some companies will renew their contracts soon, I won’t persecute anyone. Those who are lacking, they’re going to find it difficult.”</p> <p>Besides overseeing TV and radio concessions, the new ministry will also control the government&#8217;s huge advertising budget —&nbsp;as the government&#8217;s press secretary will come under the Communications Ministry&#8217;s umbrella. In 2019 alone, almost BRL 1 billion were spent on advertising — with a big chunk being used to finance disinformation channels that support the president.</p> <h2>Conflict of interest</h2> <p>The new ministry will be run by Congressman Fabio Faria, of the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte — who will have Press Secretary Fábio Wajngarten as his deputy. The arrangement creates many conflicts of interest.&nbsp;</p> <p>The first is the fact that Mr. Faria is married to Patrícia Abravanel, daughter of TV mogul Silvio Santos — whose channel, SBT, has been overtly supportive of the Bolsonaro administration. But that is only the beginning of the problem.</p> <p>Back in January, the Brazilian press revealed that Mr. Wajngarten has <a href="">taken money from the TV stations and ad agencies</a> that have contracts with the federal government. He owns 95 percent of shares in a company that offers media consulting services, with his mother owning the remaining 5 percent. At least five of his clients are outlets which depend on his office as press secretary to get ad money from governmental agencies&nbsp;— one of them is SBT.</p> <p>The station, which draws much much smaller audiences than TV Globo — but has been more docile and open to government propaganda — is receiving a bigger share of the government’s budget for ads.

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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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