Faced with dire electoral prospects in the polls and a Senate inquiry into the pandemic that will not cut him some slack, President Jair Bolsonaro has taken to threatening Brazil’s democracy on a regular basis. Of lately, he has intensified his push to end electronic voting and revert to printed paper ballots, allegedly to prevent fraud in the October 2022 elections – which is widely known to have been achieved instead with the introduction of electronic voting. The president has gone as far as to say that unless printed paper ballots are reinstated, there will not be any elections whatsoever in 2022.
Judging from his comments, one gets the impression that the president may be distancing himself from Congress. After all, most parliamentarians are against going back to paper balloting. Also, most parliamentarians do not see threats to elections with a good eye and suspect Bolsonaro is just using an unlikely return to paper balloting as a smokescreen to reject election results in 2022 in case of defeat. Some are legitimately concerned that the president could, supposedly with the support of the military, take over the government. His Defense Minister, Army General Braga Neto, was reported yesterday, 22 July, to have sent messages to congressional leaders confirming that there would be no elections in 2022 if Congress did not approve a return to paper ballots.
Revealingly, the president showed on the same day that he was by no means breaking with Congress – much on the contrary. In a weekly live stream, he confirmed that a big leader from the Big Center (a group of pragmatic parties), Senator Ciro Nogueira, would become the Chief of Staff of the presidency – a ministerial post, replacing army general Luiz Eduardo Ramos, who would now become the less powerful Secretary-General of the Presidency. The Nogueira-Ramos game of musical chairs itself shows how Bolsonaro may talk tough and evoke the military to threaten other branches of power but will turn to the Big Center for help in governing and shielding himself from impeachment or prosecution.
Since democratization in the eighties, this is the first time a president chooses a high-profile congressional leader for a top position in the presidency instead of a close personal aide. This clearly indicates how much power the president is willing to surrender to Congress in the last stretch of his presidency. As a Senator, Nogueira should also contribute to improving matters in the Senate where the inquiry into the pandemic can still inflict much damage to the president’s image and electoral future.
Bolsonaro should still not get paper balloting, but he may reinforce existing alliances, particularly in the conservative BBB “bible-beef-bullets” caucus that cuts across the Big Center. Most of the time leading up to the 2022 elections will now be spent resolving issues of interest to the allied parties, such as the tripling of the electoral fund for those elections. Economic reforms will be replaced by incremental measures that may only tangentially improve the burden on economic agents. Bolsonaro, House representatives, and one-third of the Senate want to be reelected next year, and priorities will align accordingly with that aim.