Latin America Advisor

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What’s at Stake in Brazil’s Legislative Leadership Vote?

The National Congress building in Brasília File Photo: Brazilian Congress.

Next week, both chambers of Brazil’s Congress will select their presidents. Incumbent Chamber of Deputies President Rodrigo Maia and incumbent Senate President Davi Alcolumbre are unable to remain in those posts due to term limits. Who are the lawmakers that are most likely to replace them, and what is driving their support? How is President Jair Bolsonaro influencing the selections? How important will the change in legislative leadership be to Bolsonaro’s efforts to advance his agenda?

Tabata Amaral, member of the Inter-American Dialogue and Democratic Labor Party member of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies: “The upcoming elections in both chambers of the Brazilian Congress are critical and will determine the future of our nation, especially considering the many projects that must be approved in order for Brazil to control the pandemic and recover its economy. My vote will be to ensure that we maintain the legislative branch independent and as a productive counterpower to the many threats presented by President Bolsonaro, including his disastrous handling of the pandemic, which has cost hundreds of thousands of Brazilian lives and has given rise to several impeachment efforts, and also his constant attempts to corrupt and weaken our very democratic structures and his negligence in the face of increasing poverty and inequality.”

Anya Prusa, Slater family fellow and senior associate at the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “Months of campaigning and speculation will culminate next week as members of the Brazilian Senate and Chamber of Deputies vote for their new leaders. At the moment, President Bolsonaro’s preferred candidates are favored to win: Arthur Lira in the lower house and Rodrigo Pacheco in the Senate. Pacheco has a clear path to victory over Simone Tebet, according to current vote counts, but Lira faces a tougher race. His main opponent, Baleia Rossi, is poised to secure enough votes in the first round to force a second. Leadership votes are by secret ballot, and party discipline is notoriously lax in Brazil. Therefore, Lira—and the Bolsonaro government that supports him—cannot afford to take anything for granted. For Bolsonaro, the result in the lower house is of particular political importance. Outgoing Chamber of Deputies President Rodrigo Maia, who backs Rossi as his replacement, is a powerful critic of the president, despite a shared interest in economic reforms. Lira, in contrast, represents the ‘Centrão,’ a coalition of conservative parties far more amendable to cutting deals with the government—especially once Bolsonaro began to engage in the traditional horse-trading of Brazilian coalition politics. A partnership based more on interest than ideology, however, carries its own risks, particularly if Bolsonaro’s popularity crumbles further amid a rising Covid-19 death toll and economic woes. If Pacheco and Lira are elected, the government will have demonstrated a certain ability to enact its preferences in Congress. The challenge of maintaining that influence to pass its agenda still remains.”

Gabrielle Trebat, managing director for Brazil and the Southern Cone at McLarty Associates: “The early February congressional leadership elections have been dominating the narrative in Brasília in recent months with the lower house divided between President Bolsonaro’s candidate, centrist Congressman Arthur Lira (of the Progressives Party, or PP) and Congressman Baleia Rossi (of the Brazilian Democratic Movement party, or MDB) who enjoys support from left-of-center parties as well as outgoing lower house President Rodrigo Maia. While both candidates are pro-reform, the difference is the degree of coordination with the Bolsonaro administration on the president’s legislative priorities. While Rossi is the author of a comprehensive tax reform bill, Lira favors a streamlined tax reform aligned with Economy Minister Guedes. Congressman Lira is favored to win; hailing from the Centrão, his alignment with Bolsonaro will likely come at a price, namely cabinet appointments. Should Rossi be elected, his alignment with left-of-center parties could tilt the lower house’s agenda toward fiscal spending. In the Senate, Senator Rodrigo Pacheco (DEM) is favored to win with support from Bolsonaro and the Workers’ Party, which prefers to have different parties at the helm of each house. Running opposite is Senator Simone Tebet (MDB), who has positioned herself as an independent candidate. Both Pacheco and Tebet support economic reforms and share similar voting records; the Senate race is about parties’ political strategies (for example, committee assignments) more than ideology, which explains how Pacheco can enjoy support from both President Bolsonaro and the Workers’ Party. Ironically, the biggest risk to the Bolsonaro reform agenda may be Bolsonaro himself. Last week’s Datafolha poll revealed a rise in his rejection rate to 40 percent and decline in approval ratings to 31 percent over his management of Covid. Over the weekend, Brazil’s major cities saw caravans of protesters from the left and right calling for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. The president’s political standing may be a better barometer of the reform agenda than a change in congressional leadership.”

Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues, professor of international relations at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil: “Brazil is in the middle of the most serious crisis in its recent history. The mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic by President Bolsonaro–due to his denial of science and his criminal lack of support of states and municipalities in dealing with the pandemic—has led to a health catastrophe with millions infected and thousands dead. More than 50 claims of impeachment against Bolsonaro are waiting for an evaluation by the president of the lower chamber. Having lost his main source of foreign ideological support—the defeated President Trump—Bolsonaro will face growing public support in favor of his impeachment in the coming months due to the lack of vaccines and emergency assistance for the vulnerable. In this scenario, the election of a new president of the lower chamber has become a fight between those opposing the president–represented by the centrist candidate Baleia Rossi (MDB), who has the support of incumbent Chamber of Deputies President Rodrigo Maia–and those backing the government through right-wing candidate Arthur Lira (PP). Both candidates claim having sufficient support to win but, because the vote is secret, betrayals may happen. In the Senate, candidate Rodrigo Pacheco (DEM), a self-declared independent who does not oppose Bolsonaro, is likely to win with support from incumbent Davi Alcolumbre and the major parties.”

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