Congress leadership races heat up, pit Bolsonaro against the House Speaker

. Dec 19, 2020
congress speaker House Speaker Rodrigo Maia addresses the floor: "The president is lying." Photo: Maryanna Oliveira/Brazilian House

With the members of Brazil’s Congress packing their bags, ready to leave Brasília for their end-of-year holidays, there has been enough time for one last political uproar between lawmakers and the federal government. The subject up for debate is the extension of the coronavirus emergency aid program and the Christmas bonus payment of Brazil’s Bolsa Família cash transfer initiative.

The “13th payment” of the Bolsa Família program was among President Jair Bolsonaro’s leading campaign promises, intending to gain some ownership over the renowned welfare initiative customarily credited to the center-left Workers’ Party governments.

The payment was made last year, but it seems unlikely that beneficiary families will receive anything in 2020, at least for the time being. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes claimed this morning that the government does not have the money to spare.</p> <p>The issue had largely lain dormant due to a lack of interest from the government, but was reheated yesterday when Mr. Bolsonaro claimed House Speaker Rodrigo Maia was to blame for the lack of Christmas bonuses.</p> <p>Taking the stand in the lower house this afternoon, Mr. Maia <a href="">said</a> that this was &#8220;yet another instance of the president telling lies about me.&#8221; The incumbent Speaker will leave his post after leadership elections in February, but he stressed that he will remain &#8220;a loyal adversary of the president on that which is bad for Brazil,&#8221; but &#8220;an ally of the government on causes that modernize the Brazilian state.&#8221;</p> <p>Indeed, much of the posturing on both sides concerns the very leadership elections that will take place upon Congress&#8217; return from holiday. Without the chance of re-election, Mr. Maia is seeking to appoint a successor and gather support from President Bolsonaro&#8217;s opposition.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-parliament" data-src="visualisation/2635783"><script src=""></script></div> <p>He is currently trying to convince left and center-left parties to support his as-yet-unnamed candidate, and refrain from launching their own inevitably doomed candidacies. If Mr. Maia is successful, he believes that he will count on the support of around 280 members of the lower house — 270 votes are required to form a majority.</p> <p>But the electoral jostling is far from over. President Bolsonaro&#8217;s candidate Arthur Lira is working on attracting political parties that are believed to be on Mr. Maia&#8217;s side, such as the right-wing Social Liberal Party, of which Mr. Bolsonaro was a member until last year. With the entire month of January still to go, it is likely that the organization of forces will change significantly before the February 1 vote.</p> <h2>Congress races remain unpredictable</h2> <p>At the beginning of the week, it appeared that Mr. Lira and incumbent Rodrigo Maia were practically tied in terms of support. By Friday, the pendulum appeared to swing in the direction of the government.</p> <p>Arthur Lira has the formal support of his own Progressistas party, as well as another five, giving him approximately 170 votes. However, Mr. Maia&#8217;s delay in naming his candidate caused one of his allies — Republicanos party leader Marcos Pereira — to defect to Mr. Lira&#8217;s side, boosting the government&#8217;s candidacy to roughly 198 votes.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Rodrigo Maia has the formal support of six parties, giving him an approximate total of 158 representatives on his side.</p> <p>Indeed, these calculations involve entire party benches, but in a secret ballot &#8220;betrayals&#8221; are always a feature. Teams on both sides will now embark on interviewing each member of the lower house one-by-one, in order to draw up a more detailed outlook on where the votes will go.</p> <h2>The left could decide the vote</h2> <p>With candidacies tightly poised between the support of right-wing and centrist parties, there is every chance that the left — marginalized in congressional matters since the election of President Bolsonaro — could end up tipping the scales one way or the other.</p> <p>On Thursday, leaders of the opposition in the lower house gathered and decided they will not support any House Speaker candidate supported by President Bolsonaro. This was expected by Arthur Lira&#8217;s campaign, but it could also cause problems for Rodrigo Maia. The incumbent Speaker had been weighing up the possibility of selecting Progressistas party member Aguinaldo Ribeiro as his candidate — however, the fact that his political party is part of the government&#8217;s support base could see the left and center-left reject him.</p> <p>One crucial force to be courted is the center-left Brazilian Socialist Party. While party leaders have oriented their members not to vote for Arthur Lira, over half of the bench say they would not support Aguinaldo Ribeiro, and some could even throw their weight behind Mr. Lira. In all, the opposition holds 132 seats in the lower house, meaning it will likely decide the leadership election.</p> <p>While that could be bad news for President Jair Bolsonaro, what is certain is that we should expect a larger role for left and center-left parties going forward, as they receive control over important committees in exchange for their support.

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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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