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Bolsonaro goes 2 for 2 in Congress elections

. Feb 01, 2021
arthur lira congress races Arthur Lira, Brazil's new House Speaker. Photo: Cleia Viana/CD/CN

At 51 years old, Congressman Arthur Lira has reached the pinnacle of his political career after being elected Speaker of Brazil’s House of Representatives. For the next two years, he will have a tight grip over the country’s legislative agenda and will hold the proverbial sword of Damocles over the head of Jair Bolsonaro, having sole jurisdiction over accepting or rejecting impeachment requests against the president.

He won the race against nine other candidates — and a runoff stage wasn’t even necessary. With 302 votes, he won over twice as many votes as Baleia Rossi (145 votes) and reaffirmed his strength among his peers.

</p> <p>As a matter of fact, the battle for the Speaker position was less about the two candidates — and more about the proxy war between President Jair Bolsonaro and outgoing speaker Rodrigo Maia. The pair have been engaged in a <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/04/17/bolsonaro-breaks-brazil-most-powerful-parties/">war of attrition</a> since Mr. Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, with one branch of government constantly taunting the other.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Speaker race would decide which of the two had the most clout in Brasília, and ended with Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s biggest political triumph since winning the 2018 presidential election by a landslide.</p> <p>It also marks a melancholy ending to Mr. Maia&#8217;s nearly five-year stint as speaker. Under his command, the lower house <a href="https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2020-08-13/saem-os-liberais-ficam-o-centrao-e-os-militares-no-governo-bolsonaro.html">became the driving force</a> behind the country&#8217;s political agenda over politically weak presidents and spearheaded the approval of the highly unpopular (but much-needed) pension reform in 2019.</p> <h2>How did Bolsonaro turn the tables?</h2> <p>The president began to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/02/jair-bolsonaro-bedfellows-congress-deliver-results-how-long/">sidle up to Arthur Lira</a> in April 2020, in an alliance that was more about mutual interest than political affinity.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Lira leads a federation of traditional, rent-seeking parties known as the &#8220;Big Center.&#8221; These parties represent everything that candidate Jair Bolsonaro abhorred, but became ideal allies for the president in an effort to muffle talks of impeachment after the <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/">coronavirus</a> pandemic took hold and exposed the government&#8217;s inability to respond to the crisis.</p> <p>On the other side of the table, Mr. Lira saw an alliance with the embattled government as one that would serve his aspirations of becoming House Speaker, especially once it became clear that Rodrigo Maia would not support his candidacy — instead trying to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/09/02/bending-the-rules-to-counter-rule-bending-bolsonaro/">circumvent the Constitution and run for a fourth-straight term</a>.</p> <p>Mr. Maia believed he was the right man to serve as a guardrail against Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s antidemocratic forays. But his insistence on clinging on to power alienated many of his allies, who began seeing him as a dictatorial figure.&nbsp;</p> <p>His hopes of a fourth term were <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/12/07/brazil-supreme-court-turns-new-leaf-for-congress/">quashed by the Supreme Court</a> in December. &#8220;Mr. Maia made a colossal error of judgment by thinking that the judicial branch would not put him in check just because he was the main anti-Bolsonaro figure in Congress,&#8221; says political scientist Leonardo Barreto. &#8220;By not anticipating a possible defeat in the courts, he exposed himself to this kind of defeat,&#8221; he continues.</p> <p>Just a few months ago, many speculated about Mr. Maia&#8217;s future after leaving the Speaker chair, with some suggestions he had become <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/07/11/pension-reform-rodrigo-maia-power-brokers/">too big for Congress</a>. Now, there are questions of whether he will even become a relevant figure within the opposition.</p> <h2>For Bolsonaro, Congress pitfalls remain</h2> <p>One simply cannot explain how Mr. Bolsonaro pulled off this massive win without understanding how <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2019/07/13/budget-legislation-passed-brazil-congress/">congressional budgetary grants</a> work.</p> <p>These grants are foreseen in the Constitution as a way to prevent the Executive branch having a monopoly over the federal budget. Representatives may allocate parts of the budget to projects of their interest — usually infrastructure or healthcare ventures in their constituencies. First, these amendments must be approved by Congress. After that, the executive must authorize releasing the funds, and it holds all the cards on when to do so.</p> <p>Inevitably, these amendments become a bargaining chip for the government. Per some estimates, the administration greenlit BRL 3.6 billion (USD 659 million) in budgetary grants to <a href="https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,parlamentares-que-trocaram-baleia-por-lira-receberam-verba-extra-do-governo,70003600729?utm_source=estadao:twitter&amp;utm_medium=link">garner votes</a> for this leadership election.&nbsp;</p> <p>But the price tag for Monday&#8217;s victory will be much higher. Mr. Lira&#8217;s Big Center is known for its gargantuan appetite for first- and second-level <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2021/01/24/political-alliances-private-jets-house-speaker-election/">cabinet positions</a> that oversee large chunks of the federal budget.&nbsp;</p> <p>And they are known for their shifting allegiances. When cajoled, this group can be a president’s best ally. But when their interests are not met, the Big Center does not hesitate to respond with aggression and abandon.</p> <p>And nothing makes the Big Center salivate more than a president entirely dependent on it to survive.

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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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