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Bolsonaro tries to cement coalition with cabinet reshuffling

. Dec 09, 2020
cabinet bolsonaro coalition Jair Bolsonaro (left) with cabinet members and allies. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

After winning the 2018 presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro turned his cabinet into an incompatible patchwork of power circles. This incongruous salad caused numerous internal struggles within the government and hampered the administration’s ability to pass its agenda in Congress. Little by little, however, Mr. Bolsonaro is changing course and embarking on what he promised never to do as president: using cabinet positions in exchange for political support.

Eyeing governability in the latter half of his term, Mr. Bolsonaro booted Tourism Minister and ally Marcelo Álvaro Antônio this afternoon, in order to solidify a coalition with the “Big Center,” an amalgam of rent-seeking conservative parties that is arguably the most powerful faction in Congress.

</p> <p>The Big Center is the face of <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/07/31/brazil-big-center-2018-president/">pork-barrel politics</a> within Brazil&#8217;s Congress. While scorned by voters, the group nevertheless manages to win enough seats in Congress to leverage its support from the government <em>du jour</em>. No administration has managed any sustained success without the backing of the Big Center — and Jair Bolsonaro has stopped trying to swim against the current.</p> <p>This group thrives off propelling its members to second and third-tier positions within the government, in areas with hefty budgets and plenty of electoral upsides. The Tourism Ministry is one of these coveted offices. Despite having <a href="https://brazilian.report/tourism/2017/11/13/tourists-brazil-crisis/">secondary status</a> in the cabinet, it oversees a budget of no less than BRL 660 million (USD 125 million) and will now orchestrate the recovery of one of the hardest-hit economic sectors during the coronavirus crisis.&nbsp;</p> <p>Success in this endeavor could result in significant electoral gains.</p> <h2>The Big Center has needs of its own</h2> <p>And while the Big Center is an unsavory companion for politicians looking to portray themselves as a &#8216;different brand&#8217; of leader — which has long been Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s objective — the group <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/05/15/health-minister-resignation-big-center-support-just-got-more-expensive-for-bolsonaro/">demands public prestige</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2012, in order to secure a broad coalition in São Paulo&#8217;s municipal elections, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was forced to pose for a photo op alongside the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2017/12/20/brazil-paulo-maluf-corruption/">notoriously corrupt</a> former Congressman Paulo Maluf, whom Lula <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/frases-do-passado-revelam-antagonismo-entre-lula-maluf-5251198">once called</a> &#8220;the symbol of Brazil&#8217;s shamelessness.&#8221; And now, Mr. Bolsonaro is having to share his government with the Big Center and back Congressman Arthur Lira — the group&#8217;s most prominent leader — in the upcoming election for House Speaker.</p> <p>Truth be told, Mr. Lira has been able to deliver important wins for the government in the House — something that was a rarity not long ago. Thanks to his whip, a new legal framework for seaborne cargo transportation was pushed forward, and a proposal for <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/09/02/explaining-brazil-podcast-reducing-business-complexity-in-brazil/">tax reform</a> was blocked. While officially championed by the administration, Mr. Bolsonaro does not want the reform bill to go ahead at the present time, to avoid letting incumbent House Speaker Rodrigo Maia reap the political benefits.</p> <p>And besides handing the Tourism Ministry to the Big Center, Mr. Bolsonaro is holding parliamentary grants hostage, only signing off on money transfers to lawmakers who pledge their support for Mr. Lira, as <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2020/12/governo-bolsonaro-barra-liberacao-de-emendas-e-condiciona-dinheiro-a-voto-em-lira-na-eleicao-da-camara.shtml">reported</a> by newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.</p> <h2>WhatsApp tantrum signals the end</h2> <p>Outgoing Tourism Minister Marcelo Álvaro Antônio is unlikely to leave quietly.&nbsp;</p> <p>As revealed by weekly magazine Veja and confirmed by <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, Mr. Antônio lost his cool this week and accused Secretary of Government Luiz Eduardo Ramos — who acts as a liaison between the presidency and Congress — of conspiring to get him booted from his position.&nbsp;</p> <p>The outburst occurred on a WhatsApp Messenger group chat including members of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s cabinet. As one group participant revealed, &#8220;things got real&#8221; between the pair, and drew President Bolsonaro&#8217;s <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/em-grupo-de-ministros-titular-do-turismo-acusa-ramos-de-conspirar-para-tira-lo-do-cargo-24788032">ire</a> after the story was leaked to the press.</p> <p>However, reports that the WhatsApp tantrum triggered the firing are inaccurate.&nbsp;</p> <p>While it would speak volumes about how Mr. Bolsonaro handles his government if his Tourism Minister, who <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/02/13/dummy-candidate-scandal-cabinet/">survived two years</a> of mounting evidence of misuse of public funds, was fired because of a WhatsApp message, the true motive has a lot more to do with realpolitik than a simple falling out.

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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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