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July 23, 2020

BRAZIL: Congress will lead regardless of changes in Bolsonaro’s ways

BY Mario Marconini

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President Jair Bolsonaro has laid down his weapons against Congress and the Supreme Court (STF) to avert an impeachment trial but will continue to insist on contrarian ideas whenever possible. For one, Bolsonaro’s opposition to governors who insist on social distancing and limited business openings has discernibly been invigorated – not discouraged – since his infection with Covid-19. With a weekly moving average of deaths above 1,000 per day for more than two weeks, Brazil is still fighting to end the first wave of infections.

The president is aware that he has to have a modicum of provocative ideas to prevent die-hard supporters from losing their stamina. The biggest blow to them has been the president’s complete handbrake turn in relation to what he called “old politics”, going from staunch critic to obsequious provider of the pork and patronage that made that type of politics “old” in the first place. Die-hards have been critical of the move and social network numbers declined accordingly – but nothing that could not be compensated in the polls by the low-income segments of the population that qualified for official cash transfers during the pandemic.

Bolsonaro may have bought himself some time and slack in relation to impeachment but that does not translate into a carte blanche for proposing and vetoing legislation at will. Last week, he vetoed key provisions of a sanitation bill that could bring billions into the economy (in addition to much needed sanitation per se) and an anti-crime package. As regards Covid-19, he vetoed the extension of much needed payroll tax cuts until the end of next year, the mandatory use of masks in certain public places, and the access to drinkable water, hygiene materials and mechanical ventilators by indigenous communities. Had it not been for Senate president Davi Alcolumbre, who is also Chairman of the legislature as a whole, who has been preventing presidential vetoes from going to a vote, the government would have suffered severe defeats across a wide range of issues. Negotiations on the vetoes had to be postponed for next week all the same.

Congress did not take the government’s attitude lightly and reacted strongly. On 21 July, the House approved in two votes, both with a higher than 95% majority, a constitutional amendment for a new version of the most important basic education fund in the country, Fundeb, increasing the contribution of the federal government from a current 10% to 23% of total resources by 2026. The government wanted to contribute less money (20% by 2027), delay the entry into force of the new Fundeb to 2022 and use some of the money for its announced but still unknown flagship social program “Renda Brasil” (“Income Brazil”) – the successor of the successful cash-transfer Bolsa Familia program.

This was a major victory for the House, and the Senate intends to approve the amendment without changes next week. Even the much-awaited presentation by the government of the first phase of a tax reform proposal on the same day could not undo the sense of “mission-accomplished” and leadership in Congress. The proposal was seen as overly modest and Congress will continue to lead the way and exact an increasing price for supporting government initiatives.

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