Buenos Aires Times


Brazil’s next president to struggle with highly fragmented Congress

Front-runner Jair Bolsonaro will be able count on the support of a bolstered conservative bloc but his legislative efforts will still face substantial opposition, with vested interests pervading the halls of Congress.

Saturday 20 October, 2018
Brazil's candidates.
Brazil's candidates. Foto:JOAQUIN TEMES

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Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro came close to an outright victory in Brazil’s presidential election first-round vote earlier this month and he is in pole position to clinch the October 28 run-off against his Workers’ Party (PT) rival Fernando Haddad.

Nine days before the second ballot, polls from Datafolha show the former Army captain is maintaining a wide lead over his opponent, with a 58 percent of voter support compared to Haddad’s 42 percent.

Yet Bolsonaro – or Haddad, should the ex-São Paulo mayor pull off a shock turnaround – will face challenges in governing, with Congress more fragmented than ever, despite the election of a bolstered bloc of conservative lawmakers. While the Social Liberal Party (PSL) is expected to gain 51 seats in the lower house – a major accomplishment for a party that used to have only eight – the total number of deputies is 10 times the new PSL caucus, standing at 513.

“There has never been a Congress as fragmented as the Congress that will be seated in January, 2019,” said Scott Mainwaring, professor of Brazil Studies at the Harvard University’s Kennedy School in an interview with the Times. “And the fragmentation is especially great on the right.”

Whoever is elected will not only inherit widespread corruption and a fiscal straitjacket, but will also have no governing coalition to pass reforms. The long history of corruption and patronage inside Brazil’s Congress will require the next president to forge political alliances.

“Some of the conservative politicians in Brazil will certainly support Bolsonaro’s agenda almost regardless of what it is,” said Mainwaring. “However, a lot of the Brazilian right is deeply clientelistic – they do not want an efficient state.”


Indispensable to ensure the congressional support is Centrão, or “big centre,” a group of mid-size parties representing the real concept of establishment – conservative forces dating back to the Constitutional Assembly of 1986-1988.

Today, the “big centre” includes the Democrats party (DEM), the Progressive party (PP), the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), and the Humanist Party of Solidarity (PHS).

“Accomplishing deep reform will be challenging for Bolsonaro as it has been for every president in Brazil since 1985,” said Mainwaring. “[Yet] the biggest challenge for him will be articulating a coherent vision. He hasn’t really articulated one so far.”

A good starting point for an eventual Bolsonaro coalition will be the so-called “Bible, beef and bullets” – BBB – caucus, which groups evangelical Christians, the farm lobby and lawmakers determined to ease strict firearms controls.

“Evangelicals have become a huge force in Brazil’s politics,” said Gustavo Ribeiro, founder of The Brazilian Report news website told the Times. “They are present where the state is not – creating a sense of community even in the most peripheral areas.”

With 199 seats in Congress, the Evangelical Christian caucus is naturally aligned with the far-right candidate’s presidency for his ultra-conservative stances on family, abortion, LGBTQ rights and drugs.

Bolsonaro’s promise to ease restrictive gun laws and reduce crime in rural areas also won him the support of the Parliamentary Agricultural Front (FPA), the country’s powerful agrobusiness sector accounting for more than a third of the lower house and a quarter of the Senate seats.

Conservative landowners also see an opportunity to roll back environmental regulations, as Bolsonaro has long supported the idea of opening up indigenous areas to agricultural and commercial use and says he would merge the Farm and Environment ministries, said Ribeiro.

Brazil currently has 28 political parties represented in Congress, and it will soon count 30. As a consequence of the electorate’s growing demand for political reform, the legislative body will also mark the highest turnover rate in the history of the country. According to the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, there’s been a 51-percent turnover rate in the lower house – with the number of female deputies rising from 10 to 15 percent – and a shift of 85 percent in the Senate, with 46 of the 54 seats occupied by new members.



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