September 24, 2021

Latam

BRAZIL: Congress to lead on policy as President focuses on narratives

BY Mario Marconini

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( 4 mins)
  • President Jair Bolsonaro’s controversial speech at the UN shows his continued need to focus on narrative-building as opposed to actual governing.
  • Congress has occupied the vacuum, though significant differences of approach prevail between House and Senate.
  • Budget challenges are forcing the government and Congress to seek common solutions.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s 21 September speech at the UN General Assembly confirmed his priority in pushing untrue narratives over the reality on the ground in Brazil. There were strong reactions from the political establishment in relation to the president’s distortions on the level of deforestation in the Amazon and environmental protection; the situation of indigenous populations; and the nature and dimension of recent anti-democratic protests. The president’s adherence to the truth in emphasizing his belief in “initial treatment medicine” (i.e. hydroxychloroquine) for Covid-19 was also a source of much domestic criticism.

Agenda grabbing

Whether Bolsonaro opted for such a discourse at the UN to please his die-hard support base or, even more importantly, to prepare for his defense in relation to cases that might be submitted to international courts against him, the fact is that Congress has occupied the vacuum left by the government in leading the work on major domestic issues. Both leaders of the House and the Senate were elected with the support of the government. However, Bolsonaro’s aggressiveness in defending anti-democratic agendas and the worsening of his electoral prospects amid challenging economic conditions have combined to prompt Congress to act alone as much as possible. There are important distinctions between the approach taken by each leader, however. While Senate Chairman Rodrigo Pacheco takes on the defense of democracy, House Speaker Arthur Lira takes on the defense of the political class. Little space remains to champion government priorities from either side.

Bicameral quibbles

Lira has done much to show dynamism and expediency. He bulldozed a mini-reform of the income tax regime, approving it with the support of the opposition – not the government, which opposes the draft that cleared the House. He has also supported a constitutional amendment on an administrative reform that is about to clear the chamber. On more self-serving matters, he led the push for a new electoral code that restored party coalitions in proportional elections, thus favoring small parties that could otherwise vanish in time. His defense of the tripling of the electoral fund to BRL 6bn (USD 1.15bn) was instrumental in securing at least a doubling of the amount, expected to be agreed following Bolsonaro’s veto.

Pacheco, on the other hand, has been active in rejecting Bolsonaro’s flagship initiatives such as an executive order to curtail social media companies from removing fake news from their platforms or a request to impeach a Supreme Court judge. He has also functioned as a shield to Lira by publicly opposing elements of the House’s electoral code proposal – which has now been approved in the Senate without party coalitions in proportional elections. On a lenient environmental licensing proposal from the House, Pacheco designated three committees to examine it – which is perceived as a means to kill it. On a mini-labor reform, he led the movement to reject it.

United but challenged

Where Lira, Pacheco, and even Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, seem to agree is on the need for a solution to a workable budget that includes a new cash transfer program ( Auxilio Brasil ) for 2022. A first priority refers to judicial claims the government has to pay out pursuant to court decisions next year – without which the government would surpass the official spending ceiling. A proposal for a constitutional amendment (PEC 23) has been agreed among the three that would leave BRL 50bn of the total BRL 90bn outside the ceiling. A second priority is to approve the House bill now in the Senate on an income tax mini-reform. Both priorities are still tall orders, however: the first is seen as defaulting on court-mandated payments and transgressing fiscal laws; the second is suspected of being net-negative from a revenue perspective, thus incapable of paying for Auxilio Brasil. Lira and Pacheco will need to outdo themselves. The outcome is still unclear.

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