Magna Inacio – Overshadowing the honeymoon opportunities: Bolsonaro’s first month in power

An overshadowed honeymoon has been giving contours and rhythm to Bolsonaro’s first weeks in power. During the honeymoon, the new administration’s first 100 days, presidents usually count on the public’s good will and send strong signals of presidential leadership when presenting a clear governing agenda on Day One. Since “not all presidents are created equal”, the honeymoon phase is an exceptional chance for the president to wisely allow voters, political representatives and opponents to update their feelings about the new incumbent. The value of the first weeks is even greater when strong polarization, political uncertainty, and distrust prevailed during the electoral campaign. Despite these well-known advantages, some presidents allow, or cannot avoid, the overshadowing of the initial steps of their administrations.

Stabbed during an electoral rally, Jair Bolsonaro did not intervene much in the debates of the political campaign. Instead, he intensively resorted to social media to rhetorically reinforce his image as an anti-system candidate. His populist appeals fed the hopes of social conservative groups, and he voiced fury against corruption and committed himself to ultraliberal economic reforms. Backed by a weak partisan coalition, but supported by a massive number of religious leaders, anti-corruption activists and radical opponents of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT), Bolsonaro defeated established parties and won the presidential race with 55% of the valid votes.

The first test of Bolsonaro’s leadership skills was the “presidential transition” process. It is quite an institutionalized process in Brazil when, for 55 days, outgoing and incoming administration teams work together and the latter organize themselves to assume governing responsibility. Bolsonaro’s limited participation in the presidential campaign, along with high expectations about the content of his governing agenda, raised political uncertainties about which policies he was committed to and on which policies he would be able to deliver. Reforms to overcome the economic crisis and the state fiscal deficit, such as the reform of the pension system, had been initiated by outgoing President Michel Temer, who conducted a pronounced pro-market policy-shift after the impeachment of the leftist president Rousseff. However, he became a lame duck president after corruption scandals broke the ruling coalition, interrupting the costlier reforms. Shifting the weight of economic decisions to the minister of economy was Bolsonaro’s only move toward these reforms. Everyone expected pronouncements from the president about these reforms during the transition, but the little we knew about Bolsonaro’s policy preferences did not increase much.

It was also expected that, after winning the presidency, Bolsonaro would signal how he was going to handle his minority status in Congress, to get support for his promised policies. During the campaign, Bolsonaro strongly associated Brazil’s problems with the prevailing model of “coalition presidentialism,” on which past governments have been building legislative support, as a source of corruption and wrongdoing. Avoiding commitments to partisan bases, he claimed that nationalism should be the true motivation for inter-branch cooperation. The president-elect left legislative parties’ leaders “out of the loop”, and placed loyal campaigners and the military at center stage. Thus, the transition period did not contribute to dissipating uncertainties.

President Bolsonaro was sworn into office on January, 1st, 2019. His honeymoon period began with 65% of Brazilians declaring their optimism over the economic prospects under the new administration. However, some missteps during its first 30 days have set off alarms about the strengths of the president’s leadership. In the following, we call particular attention to intra-government management and the relations with Congress.

Cabinet Management

Miscalculations in the formation and management of the inaugural cabinet may have cost the president some reputational losses. This is particularly a risk when a new party assumes power and the president, such as Bolsonaro, lacks experience in the executive branch. At the beginning of his term, politicization, flip-flopping, and erratic cabinet politics increased the misgiving or skepticism about this president’s leverage to coordinate the executive and advance economic structural reforms.

A radical politicization of the executive, with the nomination of campaigners loyal or ideologically close to the president, to ministerial and high-level positions, has engulfed even more the institutionalized and specialized agencies whose efficiency can be hurt by such a strategy. “True believers” in the conservative agenda voiced by Bolsonaro were nominated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, and promptly announced deep changes in the core policies carried out by these structures and bureaucracies. The dismissal of all nominees considered to be sympathizers of leftist parties was one of the first acts of the loyal campaigner and Chief of Staff.

Without party coordination, this politicization was led by the “president’s men”. It broadened the space for fights within Bolsonaro’s electoral coalition for open positions. Cross-pressured by these groups, Bolsonaro flip-flopped on the nomination of several would-be ministers. Flip-flopping became evident, for the most part, in the organization of state agencies. The candidate, who had campaigned for a drastic reduction of the cabinet to 15 ministries, ultimately admitted to the need for 22. Flip-flopping marked Bolsonaro’s attempts to dismantle or transfer agencies in charge of policies that he opposed. For instance, his initial announcement of the elimination of the Ministry of the Environment was cancelled following opposition from the agrobusiness sector, worried about the negative impact on exports.

These management missteps damage the reputation of the president; even more so, when a lack of communication strategy amplifies them. Bolsonaro’s insistence on communicating each decision by Twitter and live-streaming web videos has allowed everyone to follow this presidential flip-flopping closely. More dramatically, the 6-minute speech delivered by Bolsonaro during the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos, followed by a cancellation of interviews, showed how costly these missteps can be for a reputation still being built.

Difficulties in accommodating the demands of his mixed coalition, left their marks on the final make-up of the cabinet. Nonpartisan super ministers of the Economy and of Justice had been appointed early; however, the whole cabinet was known only a few days before the inauguration. Loyal campaigners, or leaders of parliamentary fronts, were the only six ministers with previous legislative careers. Military officials assumed more ministerial and high-level positions than expected, corresponding to 7 out of 22 ministers. Beyond the defense policy, they are in charge or sharing responsibilities of inter-ministerial coordination and inter-branch relations inside the Presidential Office. Their significant participation in the government, for the first time since Brazil’s re-democratization, has raised concerns about civilian control over the military and potential intra-cabinet conflicts between civilian and military cabinet members.

Inter-branch (dis)coordination

Despite the presidential coattail effect on legislative and governorship elections, Bolsonaro was elected as a minority chief executive – as all members of the Brazilian “presidents’ club” have been. However, the president did not follow his predecessors in forming a coalition government to overcome this challenge. Instead, Bolsonaro has said he will govern with the backing of legislative coalitions, based on policy compromises.

The high levels of parliamentary fragmentation and legislative turnover could favor this presidential calculation. The effective number of parties is 16.5 and 13.5 in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, respectively.  The electoral endorsement from powerful “parliamentary fronts”, such as the famous “Beef, Bible, and Bullet” groups, boosted Bolsonaro’s expectations to coordinate executive-legislative relations based on these shifting coalitions.

This expectation is unrealistic: the president/his party are neither the median legislator nor are they able to cartelize the legislative agenda without a multi-party alliance. A party of amateurs is backing the president. It is unable to lead any efforts to build a stable legislative coalition. Despite its exceptional growth in the last election, it holds only 11% and 4.9% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively. Most legislators are either outsiders or newcomers recently affiliated with the presidential party, just like Bolsonaro. The election to speakership positions showed the continuing capacity of the established parties to control the agenda and to check executive moves inside the Congress. The current Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies won a new mandate by leading a large legislative coalition, with 58% of the deputies. Despite the presidential party having taken part in this alliance and grabbing some important committee chairmanships, it shows the persistence of the partisan bias of these Chambers, where all executive proposals must be introduced. 

There is a one-month lapse between the presidential inauguration and when the new legislature starts in Brazil. It makes the president and his cabinet the most visible actors in the spotlight, able to get media coverage for engaging the public and stakeholders in addressing governing challenges. Beyond the first-mover advantages derived from the presidential powers, the president can frame the legislative debate before the new Speakers and party leaders take their seats. Surprisingly, Bolsonaro and his team did not seize these opportunities. On the contrary, ambiguous messages and negative records marked this period. Under these conditions, legislative parties stepped back before compromising with the president.

The government has not really engaged in the lawmaking process since the transition. Congressional leaders’ expectations of discussing final adjustments to the 2019 budget law with the new administration were disdained by the future Minister of the Economy. This fed into misgivings about either his lack of expertise in the public sector or his willingness to make unilateral decisions.  The content of the most anticipated executive bill proposal, the reform of the pension systems, is still unknown, and ambiguous signals have suggested conflicts among government groups. The military personnel resists change to their special pension-system, while the Minister of the Economy defends broad reforms. To show some action, the president has resorted to regulatory and administrative decrees in order to implement some electoral promises. Through the issuing of decrees, the new administration has facilitated gun ownership in Brazil, the monitoring of NGOs – Non-Governmental Organizations – by the Presidency, and given more nominees the power to declare secrecy over official documents, among others.  These decrees are, of course, properly understood by the legislative parties to signal that the minority president is willing to engage in unilateral actions.

Yet, the honeymoon has been overshadowed by an event that challenges Bolsonaro’s ability to manage a crisis. A judicial investigation has put the president’s family on the spot in a very sensitive area, a corruption scandal. It was revealed that a friend of the president’s son has been investigated for suspicious bank transactions while he was a staff member in the office of Flávio Bolsonaro, a state representative until 2018. Afterward, it became known that Flávio has employed family members of an alleged gang leader, from Rio de Janeiro, in this office. After denying his involvement, Flavio claimed his right to legislative immunity since he was elected senator, which was later rejected by the Supreme Court. The president, his sons and close allies have been discrediting these accusations and aggressively attacking the press on social media. On the other hand, the vice-president gained his momentum by defending the free press and judicial institutions investigating any possible wrongdoing involving government members. Bolsonaro knows that any reputational losses in this anti-corruption territory can greatly reduce his political leverage for keeping the military under his leadership and getting support from Congress.

The first 30 days of Bolsonaro’s administration have been intense. His initial decisions and moves indicated potential problems in cabinet management and inter-branch relations which could aggravate, rather overcome, his political weaknesses inherent to having been elected as a minority president. However, if the honeymoon of his administration has been overshadowed, it was caused by the president himself.

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