Bolsonaro-backed candidates claim top posts in Brazil’s Congress

Candidates backed by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro won the top positions in the country’s Congress on Monday, dramatically strengthening the populist leader’s hand as he gears up for re-election next year.

Arthur Lira, a federal lawmaker from the Centrão bloc, was elected speaker of the lower house — a powerful position that controls the legislative agenda — while Rodrigo Pacheco won the presidency of the Senate in the biggest political shake-up since Mr Bolsonaro’s election in 2018.

The results will be a boost to the agenda of the rightwing president, whose populist instincts on issues such as gun control and environmental deregulation were largely stymied by Rodrigo Maia, the former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Lira pledged to support on the Bolsonaro administration’s economic reform plans as well as maintain a cap on government spending, which has been a central focus of increasingly nervous investors in Brazil.

Aware that he is widely viewed as in the thrall of the Brazilian president, however, Mr Lira has vowed to maintain the independence of Congress and promote legislation through consensus.

“In addition to preserving the independence of [Congress], the speaker should not have his own voting agenda. Who will decide on the projects that go to the plenary will be the college of leaders. It is not a question of being for or against any topic, but of the posture expected from the presidency of the house,” said the new speaker, who will serve a two-year term.

Mr Lira’s victory is also likely to dampen discussions about the impeachment of Mr Bolsonaro — a prospect that has gained momentum in recent weeks amid growing outrage over the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past two weekends, convoys of demonstrators — some of whom were once sympathetic to Mr Bolsonaro — have protested noisily in Brazil’s biggest cities.

“If Lira is president [of the chamber], an impeachment process is very unlikely. But nothing is 100 per cent certain as it depends on public pressure,” said Major Olímpio, a senator from the far-right PSL group and a former ally of Mr Bolsonaro.

The victories of Mr Lira and Mr Pacheco, however, will not give Mr Bolsonaro a free hand in Congress, and the Brazilian leader is likely to face increasingly onerous political horse-trading ahead of federal elections next year.

Mr Lira is a leader of the Centrão bloc, a 230-strong group of lawmakers known for lending political support in exchange for federal appointments or slices of the government budget.

The Brazilian newspaper Estado de São Paulo reported that ahead of the congressional polls on Monday, the Bolsonaro administration freed up hundreds of millions of dollars in budgets for 250 lawmakers to spend on public works in their districts.

Analysts pointed out that the Centrão bloc is notoriously fickle and that the government will need to continuously allocate funds to keep its lawmakers happy — resources it currently cannot afford.

“Each vote in Congress will be a new negotiation. The Centrão is pragmatic and without any ideological content. Its objective is continued power,” said Carlos Mello, a political scientist at Insper.

Former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 after losing the support of Eduardo Cunha, the then-speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and a leader of the Centrão. Mr Cunha was subsequently sentenced to almost 16 years in prison for corruption as part of Brazil’s sprawling Car Wash graft investigation.

Mr Lira takes over the presidency of the chamber while also under investigation for corruption in the same long-running investigation. He has also been accused of battery by his former wife — a claim he denies.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice

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