Bending the rules to counter rule-bending Bolsonaro

. Sep 02, 2020
controlling Bolsonaro Senate President Davi Alcolumbre (L) and House Speaker Rodrigo Maia. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR Senate President Davi Alcolumbre (L) and House Speaker Rodrigo Maia. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Jair Bolsonaro is an easy target for politicians and detractors. The Brazilian president is crass, uncultivated, and is usually seen defending the indefensible — such as supporting the rollback of environmental controls in the Amazon, shrugging at the deaths of over 100,000 people from the coronavirus, or threatening to launch a self-coup. Mr. Bolsonaro actively tries to undermine democratic institutions and his actions have given other political actors in Brazil something of carte blanche to bend the rules to their self-interest, providing the justification is to “counter Jair Bolsonaro.”

On the grounds of containing the president’s “penchant for authoritarianism,” the Supreme Court is about to allow House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and Senate President Davi Alcolumbre to circumvent the Constitution and pull off a highly controversial move to enable their own re-elections in 2021.

</p> <p>In a letter sent to the court last week, Mr. Alcolumbre claimed that a <a href=",Art.">1997 constitutional amendment</a> allowing presidents, governors, and mayors to serve a second consecutive term may also be applied to the heads of the Senate and House of Representatives. The law states that re-election rights are granted to the heads of federal, state, and municipal executive branches, and &#8220;those who have succeeded them.&#8221; In Mr. Alcolumbre&#8217;s view, the fact that the House Speaker and Senate President are number two and three in the presidential line of succession would allow them to extend their terms.</p> <p>As <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has previously covered, the elections for the heads of each congressional house are <a href="">highly consequential processes</a>, as the Speaker and Senate President both have agenda-setting powers. Moreover, the Speaker is the sole person who can initiate impeachment proceedings against a sitting president.&nbsp;</p> <p>They can be a government&#8217;s best friend —&nbsp;or its worst enemy.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The rules of congressional elections</h2> <p>The rules for electing congressional leaders are complicated. Re-elections are not permitted — but there is a loophole. Lawmakers are elected to four-year terms —&nbsp;but each chamber&#8217;s directive board gets two-year terms. So, a Speaker could technically be re-elected if their two terms came in separate legislatures, i.e., after retaining their seat in a general election.</p> <p>As the next general election is in 2022, that particular loophole will be sewn shut for 2021. But that isn&#8217;t stopping Messrs. Maia and Alcolumbre from angling for another two years in charge.</p> <p>The former has excelled in his &#8216;creative interpretation&#8217; of the congressional rulebook, cherry-picking which directives to follow, according to his political ambitions.&nbsp;</p> <p>He became Speaker in 2016, when disgraced former Congressman Eduardo Cunha — who occupied the chair at the time — was arrested for corruption and impeached. Rodrigo Maia <a href="">was re-elected in 2017</a>, claiming his first year didn&#8217;t really count due to the exceptional circumstances of his ascension. Then, in 2019, he was properly re-elected, using the aforementioned legislature loophole, and&nbsp;promising this term would be his last. Now, he appears to have changed his mind.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="924" height="579" src="" alt="bolsonaro maia" class="wp-image-48948" srcset=" 924w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 924px) 100vw, 924px" /><figcaption>Rodrigo Maia in 2017. Photo: Ag. Câmara</figcaption></figure> <h2>Bad practices with good (?) intentions</h2> <p>Aiming at preventing Messrs. Maia and Alcolumbre&#8217;s push for re-election, the right-wing Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) filed a <a href="">lawsuit</a> in the Supreme Court trying to reinforce the regulations that prevent mid-legislature re-elections for the heads of Congress. The move was aimed to please President Jair Bolsonaro —&nbsp;who has had his fair share of conflict with the duo — especially Rodrigo Maia.</p> <p>But this could backfire and pave the way for a turning of the tables that could play in the favor of the Speaker and the Senate President, in which the Supreme Court could greenlight their re-election. In the words of one justice who spoke to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, the court is leaning toward permitting re-election, due to &#8220;concerns about the president&#8217;s authoritarian impulses&#8221; and its willingness &#8220;to uphold democracy.&#8221;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro is already barely controlled by the existing democratic checks and balances, and insiders fear that having an ally in charge of the House and/or Senate could give him even more power.&nbsp;</p> <p>The problem with that reasoning is that political stakeholders are themselves engaging in the behavior they fear from President Bolsonaro. Last year, the Supreme Court launched a <a href="">highly contested investigation into the spread of fake news against its members</a> — a probe that evolved into something much broader — a case in which its justices are victims, judges, jurors, and executioners.</p> <p>And in Congress, Messrs. Maia and Alcolumbre are tearing up the rulebook, under the excuse that they are acting as a &#8220;buffer&#8221; to Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s worst impulses.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

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