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Battle lines drawn for crucial 2021 Congress election

. Dec 07, 2020
congress election House Speaker Rodrigo Maia (left) and Senate President Davi Alcolumbre. Photo: Edilson Rodrigues/AgSen

In article 57 of Brazil’s Constitution, it is explicitly stated that the heads of Brazil’s congressional houses are unable to run for re-election in the middle of any given four-year legislature period. However, the provisions of the Constitution have never gotten in the way of the country’s Supreme Court, and its 11 members have employed “creative” solutions to fit their interests on several occasions. Another example was set to occur this week, as justices ruled on whether House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and Senate President Davi Alcolumbre would be handed the right to run for another two years in their powerful offices. 

Behind the scenes, Supreme Court justices had formed a majority in favor of bending constitutional rules, as the court sees Messrs. Maia and Alcolumbre as necessary checks to President Bolsonaro’s penchant for authoritarianism.

</p> <p>However, as we explained in <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/12/07/brazil-supreme-court-turns-new-leaf-for-congress/">today&#8217;s Weekly Report</a>, infighting between justices led the court to block the request, meaning neither Rodrigo Maia or Davi Alcolumbre will be able to stand for re-election in February.</p> <p>The verdict was not reached out of desire to observe the Constitution, but rather due to an internal power struggle between Chief Justice Luiz Fux and influential <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/11/18/interview-gilmar-mendes-moro-car-wash/">Justice Gilmar Mendes</a>. As Justice Mendes was behind the push to help Messrs. Maia and Alcolumbre, the chief justice&#8217;s allies decided to reject the request.</p> <p>Here&#8217;s how the trial affects Brazil&#8217;s political chessboard:</p> <h2>Democratas party loses allure</h2> <p>The conservative Democratas party suffers the most obvious defeat. Both Rodrigo Maia and Davi Alcolumbre are members of the center-right party, and control over the House and Senate has brought the group to a highly influential position within Brazilian politics.</p> <p>Now, it is set to lose its crown jewels. Multiple senior party members who talked to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> said the party begins this week &#8220;smaller&#8221; than its <a href="https://valor.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/11/18/dem-assume-posicao-privilegiada-para-as-eleicoes-de-2022.ghtml">recent municipal election successes</a> made it look.&nbsp;</p> <p>While all stress that a lot can happen between now and the next general election, they feel that the Democratas party will lose leverage in negotiations for the 2022 election ticket. After years of playing the sidekick to Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidates, Democratas party senior figures hoped their time in the limelight had finally arrived.</p> <h2>Cut-throat dispute in the Senate</h2> <p>Previously a little-known senator from a peripheral state, Davi Alcolumbre won the Senate presidency in 2019 against all odds —&nbsp;in an election <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/02/02/senate-president-election/">filled with scandal</a>. A first attempt at a vote was nullified after the governing board counted 82 filled ballots in a chamber of 81 Senators. After behind-the-scenes negotiations, Mr. Alcolumbre&#8217;s opponent withdrew from the race, clearing his path to victory.</p> <p>With Mr. Alcolumbre out of the picture for 2021, the race for the head of the upper house starts again from scratch.&nbsp;</p> <p>With 13 senators, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party says it has the right to claim the presidency, based on an old tradition that &#8220;awards&#8221; the presidency to the largest bench. However, even within the MDB party, there would be no shortage of possible candidates — with at least five names making a case for themselves.</p> <p>Other parties could toss their own hats into the ring, making the 2021 race perhaps as wild as 2019.&nbsp;</p> <h2>House race even more nebulous</h2> <p>Meanwhile, though President Bolsonaro will be pleased at <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/07/11/pension-reform-rodrigo-maia-power-brokers/">Rodrigo Maia</a> being kept out of the 2021 House Speaker election, the landscape could give the left a rare chance to win some influence in Congress, after two years of <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/11/09/municipal-elections-highlight-challenges-facing-brazils-left-wing/">political irrelevance</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>The race seems designed to be between incumbent Rodrigo Maia&#8217;s group and the Bolsonaro-leaning &#8220;<a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/07/31/brazil-big-center-2018-president/">Big Center</a>,&#8221; the amalgam of rent-seeking conservative parties which have lent their support to the government at a price. And with 130-plus seats (of 513), the opposition will have the power to tilt the race.</p> <p>Last week alone, Mr. Maia held 15 separate meetings with party leaders in order to build a broad coalition — including the much-maligned Workers&#8217; Party. The center-left force has decided to adopt a pragmatic approach, being ready to support the same forces it called &#8220;coup-mongers&#8221; in 2018. In return, it could win some important seats on the House&#8217;s governing board and a say in the legislative agenda.</p> <p>Meanwhile, in the presidential palace, Jair Bolsonaro is assessing his own options for the House Speaker election. The office is particularly important for him, as beyond having significant agenda-setting powers, the House Speaker is the only figure in Brazilian politics who can initiate or block impeachment proceedings against the president.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro is keen on convincing Agriculture Minister <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/11/02/bolsonaros-ambitious-plans-for-his-agriculture-minister/">Tereza Cristina</a> to stand, as she was an elected lawmaker before joining the cabinet. However, with Ms. Cristina reluctant to run, the government may turn to <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/08/06/brazil-communications-ministry-snubbing-huawei-5g-talks/">Communications Minister Fábio Faria</a>. However, the president may be forced to back Arthur Lira, one of the leading figures of the aforementioned &#8220;Big Center&#8221; in Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Lira is likely to be the most competitive option available to the president, but Mr. Bolsonaro will have to tread very carefully around his candidacy. If he opts to support Mr. Lira, he will be relying on what is a vulnerable alliance with the Big Center; if he goes against him, he could end up with a House Speaker who feels scorned by the president — a very dicey situation indeed.

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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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