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Political alliances and private jets: how to win the House Speaker election

. Jan 24, 2021
speaker race brazil election Brazil's Congress building. Photo: marmore/Shutterstock

Presidential campaigns in Brazil can be brutal — and costly — for candidates, who have to cross thousands of kilometers on an almost daily basis to meet and greet voters. When it comes to congressional leadership elections, however, one would think that candidates for House Speaker would have an easier time, as the only votes they have to win over are those of their peers — most of whom they know on a first-name basis.

One would be mistaken.

Candidates for the House Speaker position have a tremendous structure at their behest,

including campaign managers and even <a href="https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,partidos-bancam-jatinhos-para-campanhas-de-lira-e-baleia-rossi,70003578222">private jets</a>. Frontrunners Arthur Lira and Baleia Rossi have been flying across the nation trying to make their case to other congressmen and minimize the risk of last-minute defections within their ranks ahead of the February 1 vote.</p> <p>While negotiations started back in November 2020, it was only after the turn of the year that the race took on an almost presidential dimension.</p> <p>In January, Mr. Lira —&nbsp;who is President Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s horse in the race — traveled to <a href="http://regions">multiple regions</a> to meet with state governors and local political leaders, from the Amazon to the soy-producing Center-West and his home region in the Northeast. Per newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo, these trips took place on board an eight-seater jet owned by two businessmen under investigation in the Operation Car Wash anti-corruption probe.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Lira himself will face trial for allegedly <a href="https://valor.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/11/24/stf-mantem-arthur-lira-como-reu-em-caso-de-corrupcao.ghtml">pocketing bribes</a> from transportation companies.</p> <p>Mr. Rossi has had a quieter campaign — at least when it comes to <a href="https://twitter.com/Baleia_Rossi/status/1347539535434047488">travel</a>. He visited the Northeast and South regions this month, flying a private jet leased by his Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party. The MDB has not disclosed how much these trips have cost, but says every expense will be declared to electoral authorities when it comes time to produce annual accounts.</p> <p>But the similarities between a general election and the race for the Speaker position end there. Unlike a presidential candidate, candidates in this election don&#8217;t have to sell a dream or ideals that bring a nation together. Instead, they only have to accommodate the interests of a self-serving class of politicians who fight tooth and nail to maintain their privileges and — in many cases — escape the claws of the Justice system.</p> <h2>Speaker race a referendum on Bolsonaro and Maia?</h2> <p>Messrs. Lira and Rossi are both largely unknown to most of the Brazilian public. And yet, both are highly regarded within the corridors of Brasília.&nbsp;</p> <p>Arthur Lira represents the so-called &#8220;Big Center,&#8221; a federation of rent-seeking, conservative parties which always seek to nurture an advantageous yet fragile relationship with the government of the day. If cajoled with executive positions overseeing large chunks of the budget, this group can be a president&#8217;s best ally. But when their interests are not met, the Big Center does not hesitate to respond with aggression and abandon.</p> <p>On the other side, Baleia Rossi represents the political establishment. His MDB party is the oldest Brazilian political outfit still in operation and it controls more mayorships than any other party in Brazil. Mr. Rossi became MDB chairman in 2019 as a push to give the party a renewed look — despite him being the son of a former cabinet member disgraced by corruption allegations.</p> <p>But regardless of their faults and qualities, this election is less about them and more about the proxy battle between President Jair Bolsonaro — represented by Mr. Lira — and incumbent House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, backed by Baleia Rossi.</p> <p>While Mr. Rossi tries to suggest that his opponent would place the lower house in a subservient position to the federal government, his opponent labels him as a lackey of the outgoing House Speaker, who choked fringe proposals for being &#8220;too divisive.&#8221;</p> <p>At this moment, Mr. Lira seems to have the edge, with more parties under his coalition. But this is never a predictable race, as the secret ballot system used for the vote is made to favor defections and betrayals.</p> <p>The entire Brazilian political class will have both eyes on the vote come February 1, which could define the outcome of the last two years of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s presidential term.

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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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