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April 15, 2021


BRAZIL: Congress and the Supreme Court raise the accountability bar

BY Mario Marconini

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( 4 mins)
  • Both Congress and the Supreme Court moved to demand greater accountability from the Bolsonaro government on the handling of the pandemic.
  • The Big Center is not satisfied with how the government has been reciprocating its support.
  • The worsening of the pandemic is likely to produce a new inflection point against Bolsonaro in the next few months.

The political situation of President Jair Bolsonaro has continued to deteriorate since the 29 March ministerial reshuffle. Since then, the president has had to face pushbacks from the main hubs of support he had worked so diligently to galvanize to prevent prosecution against his government, himself and his three politician sons. The combination of his impetuous (brinkmanship over statesmanship) and sectarian (governing only for unconditional supporters) presidential style has come to a head in the last few days as both Congress and the Supreme Court (STF) raised the accountability bar to a new level. This does not mean that impeachment is imminent or even that all is lost for Bolsonaro but the new normal is bound to inflict much damage to his presidency. This comes at a sensitive time in the current negotiations on the 2021 budget law.

The Big Center – the pragmatic coalition of parties that chase power, not ideology – is not satisfied with how the government has been keeping its end of the bargain since the election of pro-government congressional leaders from its ranks. The government has not conceded on major cabinet posts, limiting its offer to Government Secretary in the Presidency (Flávia Arruda from the liberals, PL) and Citizenship Minister (João Roma from the REPUBLICANOS) while keeping the big-prize health ministry to an unknown cardiologist recommended by the president’s senator son, Flavio Bolsonaro.

House Speaker Arthur Lira, who has been openly critical of the government since the president’s photo-op launching of a national pact to fight the pandemic, has led a verbal skirmish with Economy Minister Paulo Guedes over the 2021 budget. The issue is not trivial. Congress seems in fact to have decided to respond to its dissatisfaction with the government by approving a budget law on 25 March that effectively foresees spending beyond the official budget ceiling. Lira says the government did not honor the agreement it had with Congress. Guedes is pressured to find a solution, including expanding the budget ceiling or finding ways to pay separately for certain items along the year. Bolsonaro is certain to veto the bill by 22 April, partially or fully, if any risk remains of non-compliance with fiscal laws – yet another path to impeachment.

The biggest defeat for the government in the present new normal, however, has been inflicted by the STF with a decision by one of its judges, Luis Roberto Barroso, on 8 April, which was confirmed by the plenary on 14 April, determining that a parliamentary inquiry committee (CPI) should be installed in the Senate to investigate the (mis)handling of the pandemic by the government. The STF had already ruled similarly in cases where at least one third of the chamber’s membership had supported the creation of a CPI. The president attempted unsuccessfully to convince senators to “unsubscribe”, to expand the scope of the committee to also focus on governors and mayors, and even to ask for the impeachment of Barroso. As it stands, the CPI is moving forward, pending the election of a committee president and rapporteur, but seemingly with an anti-government bias.

The Big Center has raised the stakes for Bolsonaro in what seems to be a last chance for the president to calm down and govern. For the Big Center, a weak government is a gift from heaven but only if the government in question can deliver on promises and maintain itself out of trouble – which has not been the case with Bolsonaro so far. The specter of having former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as contender for president in 2022 only makes matters worse for the president who counted on his 25% loyal electorate to reach a runoff election against a much weaker left-wing candidate. A new inflection point in Bolsonaro’s future as president is likely to occur when Brazil reaches the mark of half-a-million deaths from Covid-19, which may be less than a couple of months away.

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