President Jair Bolsonaro’s recent campaign against the highly acclaimed electronic voting system elicited reactions from top leaders in Congress and the judiciary. The president may have succeeded in diminishing the attention devoted to the Senate inquiry into the pandemic in the media, which is a positive for him. However, his continued combative style on an issue as delicate for Brazilian democracy as voting divided more than conquered and contributed to bringing instability to levels that are detrimental to his own government and electoral prospects. He put his allies in difficult positions and gave his foes the chance to capitalize on his mistakes.
House Speaker Arthur Lira, the most significant presidential ally who holds the key to more than 120 impeachment requests, combined his desire to be proactive with the need to preserve the president from his own occasional folly. Following a clear defeat at committee level, the speaker brought the vote on a return to paper balloting to the plenary of the chamber – a highly unusual move. The necessary three-fifths majority (308 votes) was not reached to approve the related constitutional amendment but there were more favorable (229) than unfavorable (218) votes among those present – which was enough for the president to boast that there is substantial support for his idea. Lira had succeeded in putting the issue aside for now but keeping it alive for future reference.
Senate Chairman Rodrigo Pacheco has, at least on the surface, been less prone to defend the government or protect the president. He has consistently championed democracy and the need to stick to existing rules. He has already positioned himself strongly against party coalitions for proportional elections – which have been approved at the House but had been voted down as recently as 2017 as a means to limit the perpetuation of small parties (Brazil has 35). Pacheco is also likely to clash with Lira and the House if and when a mini-reform of the income tax regime reaches the Senate. He has already said that there is no consensus in Congress to move on income tax alone and has favored reviving constitutional amendment PEC 110 for a broad-based tax reform. Pacheco has also chosen to be a protagonist in congressional-judicial relations, having led friendly talks with Supreme Court (STF) president Luiz Fux.
The STF, coupled with the electoral court (TSE), which is currently led by one of its judges, Luis Roberto Barroso, have taken Bolsonaro’s threats to democracy seriously and acted to curtail his behavior. Currently, the STF has four ongoing investigations against the president, namely on: (1) fake news relating to electronic voting; (2) interference in the federal police (PF); (3) prevarication in vaccine purchase irregularities; and (4) leaking of a confidential investigation by the PF. On 13 August, an STF judge, Alexandre de Moraes, ordered the preventive arrest of a strong presidential ally, the president of the “big center” Brazilian Labor Party (PTB), Roberto Jefferson, for 13 crimes – including criminal organization. Bolsonaro reacted by threatening to request the impeachment of both Moraes and Barroso.
The sparring across leaders and institutions will continue but should, despite the noise, keep threats to democracy at bay. The economy should be the main casualty from such a situation and with it, the president’s 2022 electoral prospects.