Magna Inácio (UFMG)
Since the election of the far-right and populist president Bolsonaro, the resilience of Brazilian democracy and its system of checks and balances has been put into question. With the beginning of the Legislative year, the institutional game has started anew. On February 1st, the new lawmakers took their seats and elected their Speakers, showing the faces of both the allies and opponents of the minority president.
This most fragmented Congress, populated by a large number of newcomers, showed the extent of the 2018 tsunami of concurrent elections at the federal and state levels. The quite stable partisan balance of the Congress of recent years was severely shaken. Small far-right and social conservative parties grabbed more seats while centrist and pivotal parties, for the first time since re-democratization, dried up. Although less devasted by this tsunami, given their electoral performance in the polarized presidential election, the leftist parties and potential opposition did not leave this dispute unharmed. The dominance of the Workers’ Party (PT) on the left is now challenged by the strengthened Democratic Labor Party (PDT), in the wake of the third-place of its presidential candidate. Can the lawmakers in both Chambers fine-tune the checks and balances mechanisms to operate in this adverse environment?
In the Brazilian Congress, leadership positions and parliamentary resources are allocated according to the proportional seat share of the parties. Therefore, these changes in the partisan composition of the chambers has raised concerns about the inter-branch relations under Bolsonaro’s presidential term. This is, especially, because the multidimensionality of the policy space has increased and the decision costs raised. For those concerned about the president’s capacity to approve costly economic reforms, such as the pension and tax reforms, a central question has been how responsive these fragmented chambers will be to these reforming agendas, some of them requiring supermajorities to approve constitutional amendments. On the other hand, those worried about policy shifts affecting the minority rights and progressive agendas implemented since the re-democratization have been asking how intensely can the congress move toward social conservatism and illiberalism, supported by these strengthened far-right parties?
Regardless of the substantive content of these agendas, Brazilian presidents have been successful in approving their agendas and changing the status quo only when they are able to make the largest parties their bedfellow allies, and jointly cartelize the legislative agenda, thereby boosting a friendlier inter-branch relationship. It is not only a strategy for overcoming minority status, but also a way to make the much-vaunted, wide presidential powers effective. Presidential unilateralism, by minority presidents in Brazil, has been showing itself to be a dangerous route toward decisional paralysis or, more seriously, impeachment.
Bolsonaro did not form a governing coalition by allocating portfolio positions to legislative parties, as all previous presidents have done. He started the administration as a minority president, whose party (Social Liberal Party – PSL) holds 11% and 4% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively. Keeping this rhetoric against the political establishment, the president has insisted on governing through legislative coalitions, backed by decentralized parliamentary groups. Heading a cabinet formed by military personnel, nonpartisan experts and radical conservatives, Bolsonaro has challenged the status quo in several policy areas. However, a lack of presidential leadership has been remarkable since Day One of the administration. Feeble cabinet coordination has spilled over to inter-branch relations, as demonstrated by the first signals coming from the Congress.
The start of the Legislative year in February, a month after the president’s inauguration, gave lawmakers enough time to decode the coordination problems affecting the administration. The value of legislative arena for established parties has increased with the anti-coalitional strategy of Bolsonaro. Its strategic advantages have increased with the intense troubles faced by the administration in its beginning. Conflicts among cabinet members, scandal involving the president’s son, and delays in publicizing the legislative agenda of the government have impelled some parties to step back their moves toward the government.
The election of the Chambers’ speakers showed some capacity of party leaders to strengthen the legislative position in the institutional game. The well-established center-right Democrats party, which has some affiliated ministers but which declares itself as independent in relation to the government, elected both speakers. In the Chamber of Deputies, this party formed a large legislative coalition and reelected its former Speaker. The presidential party, PSL, took part in the coalition in the Chamber, securing important institutional positions. However, the party’s and the government’s moves to grab more power were constrained by the winner Speaker. Alongside this dispute, three parliamentary blocks have emerged: the largest right-center bloc, controlling the Speakership and 59% of the seats; and, two center-left and opposition blocks, one corresponding to 21% of the seats, and other controlling 19% of the seats. In the Senate, intra- and inter-party conflicts in the nomination process of candidates escalated the contest, and the election procedures were challenged in the Supreme Court. A newcomer senator, supported by the government’s Chief of Staff, won the election after this disruptive dispute. Differently from the Chamber, this process did not foster the parliamentary alignment of the parties in blocks.
In addition to these legislative parties’ moves, an unexpected event further weakened the fragility of the governing legislative basis in the Congress. Denouncements of electoral fraud put a minister close to Bolsonaro, who was the key coordinator of his campaign and the president of his party, at the center of a new scandal. This minister was the first fired after 58 days of this administration, following the release of audio files between the president and this minister and personal accusations. The main takeaways of this episode, from the legislators’ point of view, were: first, the strong influence of Bolsonaro’s sons can prevail upon political and partisan commitments; second, the aggressive posture of Bolsonaro toward his close aide, including the use of social media, reinforced the need to ground the relation with the president and his administration in an institutional basis. Hence, this episode has cost reputational losses to the president and overshadowed the introduction of his major legislative bill proposal, that of pension reform.
This long-awaited pension reform will be the first legislative battle for the Bolsonaro administration. As a constitutional amendment, it requires the support of 3/5 of deputies and senators in two-floor voting, in each Chamber, to be approved. While the state’s fiscal situation has put pressure on the Congress to approve this reform, its redistributive impacts have mobilized attentive interest groups and social movements, making it a costly decision. All presidents since Cardoso (1994-1999) have approved more modest reforms after intense conflicts in the Congress.
Now, lawmakers might see this reform as more costly, since they were not rewarded with a regular flow of executive resources as members of the presidential cabinet. Anticipating risks of tit-for-tat moves and in the opposite direction of the president’s electoral promises, government leaders signaled the traditional “horse-trading” with individual lawmakers for getting legislative approval of this bill. However, the political nominations of lawmakers’ allies to positions of executive agencies is apparently paralyzed due the failure of the government to coordinate it. From the lawmaker’s side, a clear message has been already sent: the Deputies approved a legislative resolution revoking an administrative decree of the executive that increased the number of officials authorized to classify documents as secret, reducing the transparency of the federal Executive. The lawmakers’ impatience is clear: a super majority, 71% of the deputies, approved an urgency petition to revoke this decree. It was the first legislative defeat of the government after the pension reform started its journey in the Congress. At this moment, it does not show a policy conflict but, rather, an unambiguous signal that the lawmakers are already at the bargaining table. Waiting for the president.