Who is Brazil’s new Supreme Court justice?

Brazil’s longest serving Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello retires from the court this afternoon, 31 years after first occupying his seat. His vacancy has offered far-right President Jair Bolsonaro his very first shot at appointing a justice to the Supreme Court — a process that is often fraught with realpolitik and cynical self-preservation. However, Mr. Bolsonaro’s pick — 48-year-old federal judge Kassio Nunes Marques — came as something of a shock to political pundits in Brasília.

Despite having promised an ultra-conservative and “extremely Evangelical” appointment to the Supreme Court, Jair Bolsonaro selected a justice with long-term links to the well-heeled establishment of Brazilian politics — a group that the president himself railed against throughout his campaign and first year in office, much to the delight of his supporters.[restricted]

Indeed, the process of agreeing on Kassio Nunes Marques as Brazil’s newest Supreme Court justice was a team effort, involving President Bolsonaro sitting down with a number of political actors who his more ideological fans abhor. On September 29, Senate President Davi Alcolumbre met with Mr. Bolsonaro, with the former telephoning current Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes to organize a sit-down with the head of state. Messrs. Alcolumbre and Mendes, it should be noted, have both been targeted and made into effigies by pro-Bolsonaro protesters during demonstrations as recently as May.

Soon after, Jair Bolsonaro arrived at Justice Mendes’s house in Brasília, accompanied by Kassio Nunes Marques. Fellow Supreme Court Justice Dias Toffoli — another bête noire of the president’s ideological base — was also in attendance. As it happened, Mr. Bolsonaro and Justice Toffoli were pictured hugging after the meeting, dividing the president’s supporters on social media.

Two days later, Mr. Bolsonaro declared the appointment of Kassio Nunes Marques, who will now have to pass a largely perfunctory confirmation hearing in the Senate.

A bolt from the blue

The choice of Kassio Nunes Marques — who intends to go by the title Justice Nunes Marques once sworn in — took almost everyone in Brasília by surprise. He did not feature on even the most exhaustive lists of favorites for a Supreme Court pick and he quickly angered President Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative supporters, to which the head of state’s choices have largely been beholden so far.

First and foremost, Nunes Marques’s political affiliations were called into question. While on the one hand he was branded as a lackey of the so-called “Big Center” — the large establishment caucus within Congress, made up of small to medium-sized parties willing to buy and sell their support — some pointed to his alleged links to the center-left Workers’ Party, Jair Bolsonaro’s declared enemies, with whom fraternization is seen as a cardinal sin within Bolsonarism.

Indeed, in 2011, Marques Nunes entered the Federal Regional Appellate Court of the 1st Region, in Brasília, after being appointed by former President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party.

He was also involved in an emblematic case in 2019, when he overturned a trial court decision to suspend the purchase of wine and lobsters for a Supreme Court function. The case was capitalized upon by supporters of President Bolsonaro — including his politician sons — as an example of the excessive privileges enjoyed by the country’s highest court, which they intended to have shut down.

In another high-profile trial dating back to 2015, he voted in favor of suspending the deportation of Cesare Battisti, the former communist activist who was sentenced to life in prison for quadruple homicide in his home country of Italy, before fleeing to Brazil to receive political asylum from former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Under Jair Bolsonaro’s government, Mr. Battisti was eventually arrested and extradited to Italy.

The Cesare Battisti case held particular importance for the ideological platform of the then-nascent Jair Bolsonaro government. As a former member of a far-left terrorist group in Italy, and having been given shelter by Lula, arresting and deporting Mr. Battisti was a message to the Brazilian left, as well as being a way to further the government’s foreign policy goals.

The man in the middle

Despite allegations of links to the center-left Workers’ Party, Nunes Marques’s most credible alliances do indeed lie with the Big Center. Indeed, his wife Maria do Socorro has worked under four senators from the couple’s home state of Piauí, all of them from traditional Big Center parties. Indeed, she was set to double her salary just as her husband got his own big break, when the Progressistas party lined her up for a commissioned post in the Senate but backed down once the news had been published by Rio de Janeiro paper O Globo.

The Progressistas party is presided over by Ciro Nogueira, who is now a close ally of President Bolsonaro and one of Mr. Nunes Marques’s biggest backers. Last year, Mr. Nogueira praised the soon-to-be Supreme Court justice during a trial session. “Our Kassio [Nunes Marques] is a highly respected figure in the legal world of today, I am certain that he will reach the high courts, either the [Superior Court of Justice] or the Supreme Court. He is a much liked and respected individual.”[/restricted]


Pillar of Brazil’s Supreme Court retires

Since Brazil’s return to democracy in the late 1980s, the country’s Supreme Court has faced many bumps and controversies along the way. The highest judicial body in the land has been the stage of earth-shattering trials, it sent a former president to jail, it had its chief justice presiding over two impeachment trials, it faced threats from radical groups, and it saw itself at war — sometimes veiled, sometimes not — with the other two branches of government.

One thing, however, has remained constant: the presence of Justice Celso de Mello, the court’s longest-tenured member, who now reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75 and steps down after 31 years. The story of the Supreme Court during democratic times is intertwined with Justice Mello’s own career.[restricted]

And on October 13, the Supreme Court will lose its staunchest defender of individual civil rights. Celso de Mello famously voided a police raid of a homeless man’s tent, considering that the tent was the man’s legal domicile and, therefore, no police action could take place there without a warrant, or before 6 am, as Brazilian law dictates. 

Furthermore, since 2019, Justice Mello has also distinguished himself as the court’s most-vocal opponent to President Jair Bolsonaro. He has used his decisions to counter what he sees as the head of state’s threats to democratic order — going as far as comparing the current moment to the crumbling of the Weimar Republic in Germany, which saw Adolf Hitler become chancellor. 

“With all necessary caveats, the ‘serpent’s egg’ seems to be ready to hatch, like what happened in the Weimar Republic,” he said, in a statement to his peers.

In his last trial, Justice Mello once again positioned himself in defiance of the president. He voted not to allow Mr. Bolsonaro to provide written testimony to investigators who are examining alleged illegal presidential interference in the Federal Police. “Nobody, not even the head of the Executive branch, is above the Constitution,” he declared, in what was the Brazilian judiciary’s answer to a mic drop.

Now, President Bolsonaro will select Celso de Mello’s replacement on the country’s highest court. The official nomination has gone to federal judge Kássio Nunes, who will undergo a Senate confirmation hearing on October 21 — early reports suggest a majority of senators will endorse his appointment.

Presumption of innocence above all else

A former prosecutor himself, Celso de Mello has proven himself to be an intransigent champion of individual freedoms, with little tolerance for prosecutors and judges who overstep the rules supposedly in the name of the “greater good.” Such creative interpretations of the law have been leveled at several anti-corruption investigations in Brazil, particularly the now-moribund Operation Car Wash. 

In a court in which justices feel comfortable changing their interpretation of the law depending on the political climate, Justice Mello has been a rare source of stability. Like his decisions or not, they have been coherent with the values he preaches.

And in a country where liberalism is a dog whistle for conservatives who champion austerity, Justice Mello proved to be “liberal” in all meanings of the word. In 2011, he voted in favor of same-sex marriage, claiming that Brazil’s secular state does not permit religious morals to limit people’s freedoms. Just last year, he also voted to equate homophobia to the crime of racism — stating that “it is indispensable that the state protect vulnerable populations.”

It is reported that, during his 1997-1999 stint as chief justice (in Brazil, that position is rotative, and members of the court alternate themselves in two-year stints), Justice Mello refused to meet with the Chinese prime minister, “so as not to send a message that the Brazilian Justice system condones Beijing’s regime.”

Champion of press freedoms in the Supreme Court

As a harsh critic of the military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, Justice Celso de Mello carried this staunch defense of the freedom of speech and assembly throughout his 31 years on the Supreme Court. During practically every example of censorship or restriction of free expression that reached the court, Celso de Mello made sure to speak out.

Among the most emblematic examples came in the trial of the Press Law issued during the dictatorship, which the court ruled as being incompatible with the 1988 Constitution. With Celso de Mello in tow, the Supreme Court underlined that the freedom of speech is one of the pillars of states that abide by the rule of law.

In the departing justice’s view, freedom of expression allows members of the press “the right to express criticism, even if it is unfavorable and in a forceful tone, against any person or authority.”

“The public interest, which legitimizes the right to criticize, supersedes any susceptibilities that may expose public figures, regardless of whether they enjoy any degree of authority,” he declared.

Crucially, he also stressed that these freedoms also extend to humor and satire. “Laughter and humor are expressions of encouragement to the conscious practice of citizenship and the free exercise of political participation, while they themselves constitute manifestations of artistic creation,” he said, when voting on the provisions of the Election Law that would prevent the broadcast of satirical programs involving candidates in the pre-election period.

For he’s a jolly good fellow …

During his final session in the court, all of Celso de Mello’s colleagues took time out to pay homage to the long-serving justice.

Justice Cármen Lúcia praised his “ethical and moral integrity” and made a point of stressing Justice Mello’s generosity in sharing knowledge. Alexandre de Moraes said the departing judge “left us lessons in how to fight corruption,” while Edson Fachin declared that Celso de Mello “may be succeeded, but will never be substituted.”[/restricted]


Bolsonaro pushes for control in Rio de Janeiro

Though born in the state of São Paulo, it was in Rio de Janeiro that Jair Bolsonaro became a politician. Following his expulsion from the Army due to insubordination, Mr. Bolsonaro ran (and won) in eight consecutive races, one for Rio’s city council, and the rest for a seat in Congress, representing the southeastern state. It was also there that he ushered his ex-wife and three children into politics.

But Mr. Bolsonaro has never been a part of the Rio political establishment, which, in retrospect, worked to his advantage — Rio’s political elite has been ravaged by anti-corruption investigations, with every former state governor having been jailed at some point.[restricted]

Not even after winning the presidency with massive support in Rio de Janeiro did the president manage to wrestle control of the state. Instead, he saw Governor Wilson Witzel — who was elected on his coattails — break with the Bolsonaro family and present himself as a possible presidential challenger. At the municipal level, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella, an ally, is as unpopular as an incumbent can be. Moreover, his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, saw himself being investigated for running money-laundering while serving as a state lawmaker.

But, with the twists and turns Brazilian politics is known for, the Bolsonaros now seem in position to plant their family flag over Rio de Janeiro and control the state.

In August, the Superior Court of Justice suspended Mr. Witzel from office, following embezzlement and money laundering accusations. Since then, the president has made multiple public gestures to acting Governor Cláudio Castro, who is also under investigation, and has intensely worked behind-the-scenes deals to put allies in key positions in the Rio de Janeiro establishment.

After the Rio State Congress decided to open impeachment proceedings against Mr. Witzel in a 69-0 vote, his ousting seems all but certain. And Mr. Castro, who should soon become the governor full-time, will take over a state that is on the cusp of a full-scale financial collapse and in need of federal support — giving the president tremendous leverage to get the best out of his relationship with the state administration.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

After being trusted with the state government in the most adverse of situations, Cláudio Castro spent six of his first 14 days as acting governor far away in federal capital Brasília, officially negotiating a renewal of Rio’s Fiscal Recovery Regime — a settlement with the federal government signed in 2017 to avoid Rio’s complete financial ruin. At one point, he posted on Twitter: “I’ve just gotten a call from Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, who put himself at our disposal to help the state of Rio.”

Days later, Mr. Castro flew on the presidential jet to attend the inauguration of the new Supreme Court Chief Justice, Luiz Fux.

“Alongside the [Rio] State Congress and our young governor, we will seek a way to bring Rio back from this dire situation. God willing, this way of doing politics will be left behind and a new era of politics will rise,” declared President Bolsonaro, two weeks ago.

If 21 months of Jair Bolsonaro as president have taught us anything, it is that his goodwill doesn’t come for free. The president demands unwavering loyalty from allies — and doesn’t take no for an answer when he wants to handpick names for public positions. And if Cláudio Castro wants to stay in Mr. Bolsonaro’s good graces, he better play ball.

Setting up the chessboard in Rio de Janeiro

The Bolsonaros have had their eyes on Rio’s law enforcement agencies ever since the family rose to national prominence. The president’s willingness to control the Federal Police state superintendency there led to a fallout with former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro. Late in March, Mr. Bolsonaro told Mr. Moro, via a text message: “You already have 27 superintendencies. I only need one [Rio].”

Now, the family has its sights set on the State Prosecution Office. Eduardo Gussem, the current head of the department — and responsible for presenting criminal charges against two of Jair Bolsonaro’s children — ends his current term in December. And it will be up to the acting governor to choose a replacement. 

The name of the Bolsonaros’ favorite for the job, ultra-conservative prosecutor Marcelo Monteiro, has made its way to Mr. Castro.

Indeed, one consequential change to cater to the First Family has already taken place. In mid-September, Allan Turnowski was named chief of the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police after Senator Flávio Bolsonaro personally endorsed him to the acting governor, as sources told The Brazilian Report.

Since taking office, Mr. Turnowski has already swapped out the heads of 70 police divisions and precincts. When asked, he claims none of these changes were politically motivated.

Since Claudio Castro was named Rio’s acting governor and got closer to the Bolsonaros, a series of personnel changes have been made in the state’s security apparatus, with all of the new faces linked to the Bolsonaro family.

Among aides, President Jair Bolsonaro is described as having a persecution complex, made worse by the stabbing he suffered during the 2018 presidential campaign — as well as reports (later debunked) tying him to the murder of City Councilor Marielle Franco.

Officials who are aware of the president’s maneuvers to take control of Rio de Janeiro’s politics mention another reason for his moves: a willingness to control and contain investigations into his two eldest sons, who are accused of running rudimentary money-laundering schemes within their public offices in the state.

For a family who was once made out of bottom-feeders in Rio de Janeiro’s shady political scene, the Bolsonaros are now the most popular political figures in the country. However, President Bolsonaro’s goals in power have always seemed provincial — targeting his home state and making life easier for his family and allies, thus his full-blown assault on the political structures in Rio de Janeiro.[/restricted]


A premature end to Brazil’s debate season

While casting a cursory glance over the U.S. presidential debates of recent weeks, Brazilians could be forgiven for feeling a little smug. The “shitshow” of constant interruptions and rule breaches in both the presidential and vice-presidential showdowns would be unthinkable in Brazil, despite its own penchant for off-the-wall and over-the-top political spats.

Indeed, were the September 29 debate in Cleveland, Ohio between Donald Trump and Joe Biden to have taken place in Brazil, Mr. Trump would have had his microphone cut on several occasions, both candidates would have been granted the right of reply, and they would be flanked by at least half a dozen other competitors representing a selection of Brazil’s 33 (!) political parties.[restricted]

Granted, Brazil’s pluralist approach to political debates is far from ideal, though it is marginally more intriguing than equivalents in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, featuring less than a handful of candidates from never-changing parties. And with municipal elections on the horizon, Brazil is going through its own debate season, which — as has been the case in the Trump v. Biden race — has been cut short due to Covid-19.

One and done

Major cities around Brazil held their first televised mayoral debates at the beginning of October, broadcast by major network Band. However, with a large number of candidates present and increased Covid-19 risks, four broadcasters have canceled their future debates in São Paulo, a decision repeated in several other cities.

Members of campaign teams are resigned to the fact that no more debates will take place — which, in Brazil’s biggest city São Paulo, is seen as favorable to the Bolsonaro-backed frontrunner Celso Russomano.

Candidates driven round the bend in Porto Alegre

One of the strangest solutions was tested in Porto Alegre, the largest city in Brazil’s South region. With a grand total of 13 candidates, local radio station Rádio Gaúcha gathered the whole baker’s dozen into what appeared to be the parking lot of a seedy motel. Each competitor remained inside their own cars — except for Júlio Flores, the candidate for the Trotskyist PSTU party, who was given a lift to the debate and sat in the passenger’s seat — while they fired questions at each other.

Arguably this wasn’t the most glamorous of settings for frontrunner Manoela D’Avila, going from being the would-be vice-president to 2018’s defeated presidential candidate Fernando Haddad to sitting behind the wheel of a Kia Sportage SUV asking for votes.

However, beyond the scripted automobile puns — one candidate was asked if he was prepared for “rough terrain” after turning up in a 4×4 — the debate largely went off without a hitch.

TV network Band went for a slightly more conventional approach in their debate the following week, though kept candidates waiting in a green room-cum-classroom, calling two at a time to ask questions.

The future of the political debate

With Covid-19 drastically changing how politicians are able to campaign, the cancellation of debates may see this long-held institution of pre-election politics be put to bed for good. In the U.S., amid the constant rule-breaking in Trump v. Biden and a fly stealing the show in Pence v. Harris, the electorate may well be wondering whether they are simply better off canceling debates for good.

Indeed, televised debates that are productive in any political sense are very few and even farther between. Platforms and proposals are rarely discussed in any depth or detail, with the content of the debate far more likely to descend into a slanging match or a mutual back-scratching session between allied candidates.

Politicians know that debates are one of the least effective ways to present their proposals and get their points across. Indeed, their main campaigning front has gone online. Candidates in the São Paulo mayoral debate illustrated this perfectly, constantly referring viewers to log onto their YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter feeds for more in-depth explanations.

Clearly, however, scrapping debates altogether is removing a level of accountability to which candidates should be held. In the 2018 presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro floundered during his only debate appearance — at which a television camera spotted crib notes written on his hand, reading “opinion poll, Lula, guns” — and then point-blank refused to attend any future discussions, using his health as an excuse.[/restricted]


The fall from grace of Sergio Moro

With the hubris that can only come from a president who sees his future secure at the head of the Brazilian government, Jair Bolsonaro emphatically declared the end of the country’s sweeping Operation Car Wash anti-corruption investigation on Wednesday, claiming his administration is now above suspicion. “I do not want to end [Operation] Car Wash. I’ve already ended Car Wash, because there is no longer any corruption in the government,” he exclaimed, during a press address.

Beyond overlooking the numerous corruption investigations targeting his inner circle — including his sons and wife Michelle — this pontifical claim symbolized Mr. Bolsonaro’s turn toward the politics of cronyism, which he promised to end during his election campaign. In broader terms, it also symbolizes the end of Brazil’s zealous anti-corruption drive, embodied by Operation Car Wash.[restricted]

Perhaps the best example of this fall from grace of the country’s anti-corruption crusader class is the ruination of Operation Car Wash’s poster boy, former judge Sergio Moro.

For large sections of Brazil’s media class and the population at large, Sergio Moro became a national hero through his role leading Operation Car Wash. While his methods and alleged bias were often criticized, he became the face of the one aspect of the Car Wash years that the vast majority of society conceded as being overwhelmingly positive: the sense of absolute impunity among the upper echelons of Brazilian politics and business was no more. At the height of Operation Car Wash, influential politicians and business owners were facing prison sentences, something that was almost unimaginable before.

However, over six years on from his first involvement in Operation Car Wash and after having his name dragged through the muck by all sides of the political spectrum, Sergio Moro is packing his bags, ready to leave Brazil.

As reported by newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on Tuesday — and confirmed by The Brazilian Report — Sergio Moro plans to trade in his political career for academia, intending to lecture at an unspecified U.S. university. While the former Car Wash judge has yet to speak in public on the story, people close to him have affirmed that the move was a request of Mr. Moro’s wife, lawyer Rosângela Moro, who has told those close to the family that her husband “has given all he can to the country” and that he is not cut out for party politics “and its savage confrontations.”

There is a suggestion that Sergio Moro will now completely abandon his plans to run for president in the 2022 election, though other sources close to the ex-Justice Minister say it will be a temporary move, before returning to Brazil in two years’ time, banking on President Bolsonaro’s stock being weakened by that time.

Security is another factor weighing on Mr. Moro’s mind. It will soon have been six months since his acrimonious split with Jair Bolsonaro and abandoned his spot in the cabinet, meaning he will now lose his BRL 31,000 (USD 5,540) salary and the right to a Federal Police escort. 

The bigger they come, the harder they fall

After 12 years as a judge in Curitiba — four and a half of them spent in charge of Operation Car Wash — Sergio Moro abandoned his career as a magistrate and joined the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who invited him to serve as Justice Minister. With promises of being given autonomy to implant an anti-corruption agenda in the administration, Mr. Moro’s long-term future seemed sewn up: a few years in the cabinet, and then a seat on Brazil’s Supreme Court

However, Sergio Moro only remained in office for little over a year, resigning in April of this year while accusing President Bolsonaro of meddling with the Federal Police to safeguard his son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, from corruption investigations.

The decision to leave the government was no doubt based on his belief that he was more popular than President Bolsonaro — a notion often repeated by the Brazilian press, who suspected the government would crumble once its anti-corruption totem jumped ship. This turned out to be a gross miscalculation, and the government’s supporters sided with the president, labeling their one-time hero as a traitor.

Indeed, despite gaining worldwide recognition for his role in Operation Car Wash, Sergio Moro was frequently criticized and undermined in the field of Brazilian politics and law. After The Intercept Brasil published a series of leaked messages from the Car Wash prosecution task force, showing Mr. Moro’s collaboration with — and often command over — prosecutors, he was accused of violating due legal process and currently faces cases in the Supreme Court that question his impartiality throughout Car Wash.

Furthermore, Sergio Moro has been repeatedly vilified by the Brazilian left, who accuse him of acting in a biased and potentially illegal manner to spur on the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, jail another former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and help elect Jair Bolsonaro.

So, having left the government, Mr. Moro had lost the widespread support from the right-wing, was unable to make peace with the left, and was ostracised in political life, with no obvious source of support. 

Discord and backtracking

The appointment of judge Kassio Nunes Marques to a soon-to-be-vacant seat on the Supreme Court represents the latest defeat for the Operation Car Wash anti-corruption movement, isolating Mr. Moro further. While the Supreme Court has made several decisions to void Car Wash cases, Congress is debating on laws that are wholly against what Mr. Moro had planned to do as Justice Minister.

On Twitter, Sergio Moro criticized Mr. Nunes’ nomination. “If Jair Bolsonaro does not appoint someone to the Supreme Court who is committed to the fight against corruption […] we will all know his true nature (and many already know),” he wrote. 

One follower asked the former Justice Minister if he knew about Mr. Bolsonaro’s “nature” when he accepted his cabinet invitation, to which the former judge replied “no.” He later deleted his post.

Moro out: Left and right celebrate

The news of Sergio Moro’s potential exodus was celebrated on social media by both the right and left. The former laud what they see as a fitting end to a “traitor,” while the latter revel in the irony of Mr. Moro leaving the country due to the very government he took part in and helped elect.

“Defenestrated by the far-right, neglected by the country’s renowned judges, unmasked as biased and without the old partnership with the media that promoted him, [Mr.] Moro is the image of decadence common among false heroes,” wrote one left-wing Twitter user.

However, one of the few demonstrations of support for Mr. Moro came from São Paulo state lawmaker Janaina Paschoal, famous for co-authoring the request that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. She expressed her solidarity with the former Justice Minister, but warned against his plan of leaving the country. 

“I perfectly understand his discouragement, Sergio Moro’s family has every right to want a bit of peace! But as a Brazilian who doesn’t say any other alternative, I ask that [Mr.] Moro and his wife think about facing another great challenge. They will have my support! Brazil needs a fourth way!” she wrote.

In Ms. Paschoal’s view, Sergio Moro would offer a voting alternative for the 2022 elections, beyond Jair Bolsonaro, a candidate from the left, or someone linked to the center.

Indeed, that the only political figure in his corner appears to be a fringe state lawmaker does not bode well for the future of a man who was once regarded as Brazil’s savior.[/restricted]


Bolsonaro goes mainstream

Late in the evening of May 30, 2020, a group of some 30 far-right activists carrying store-bought tiki torches — in a clumsy homage to white supremacist Ku Klux Klan protests — launched fireworks in the direction of the Brazilian Supreme Court building, demanding military intervention in the name of President Jair Bolsonaro and the arrest of all 11 justices of Brazil’s highest court. 

The protest raised tensions in Brasília to unprecedented levels, as the political establishment accused the government of not only failing to condemn such actions — but actively endorsing them on private social media channels.[restricted]

As authorities bumped heads on how to enforce social isolation measures as a way to control the coronavirus spread, the Bolsonaro administration engaged in a series of attacks against its fellow branches of government. At one point, the president even threatened to send military troops to shut down the Supreme Court, before being talked down by some of his closest aides.

As the pandemic raged in Brazil, the president and his allies defied democratic institutions on a weekly basis — and calls for impeachment erupted in many circles. 

Five months removed from that moment, the political climate could not be any more different. Jair Bolsonaro, the president elected on an anti-establishment message, is now going mainstream.

Last week, he chose to fill his first Supreme Court vacancy with Federal Judge Kássio Nunes, a candidate endorsed by two Supreme Court justices who, just months ago, Bolsonaro supporters wanted to see behind bars.

After nearly two years in office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s political strategy has seemingly made a U-turn. Instead of shattering the establishment, the president now seems more interested in co-opting it. After compromising with the so-called “Big Center” — a caste within Brazil’s Congress made up of veteran pork-barreling politicians — Mr. Bolsonaro is now looking to get the courts on his side.

The move makes a lot of sense for the president, as his close family are targeted by a series of criminal investigations. Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, his eldest son, has been charged with money-laundering, embezzlement, and criminal association. Meanwhile, his other two politician sons — Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Carlos Bolsonaro and Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro — are suspected of operating an illegal underground misinformation network.

Push towards establishment infuriates core Bolsonaro supporters

Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent pandering to politicians he once described as members of “old politics” has certainly frustrated his core group of ultra-conservative supporters.

Sara Winter, the far-right influencer who organized the KKK-like demonstration in May, declared on social media that she was “tired” of supporting the administration, and even accused the president of “purging” his hardcore base from the government. Meanwhile, highly influential televangelist Silas Malafaia has called the president’s latest moves a “shameful outrage.”

Even his most loyal political commentators have started to bash his recent turn.

Still, those outbursts do not mean the pro-Bolsonaro train is falling off the tracks. Instead, frustrating his own supporters is a key part in the project to consolidate the president’s power. His defense of far-right causes still makes him the best — and perhaps the only — option for the extreme right in 2022. Meanwhile, his recent implementation of welfare policies and alliance with moderately conservative forces may help him attract a voter base that seemed unreachable just months ago.

Every poll shows Mr. Bolsonaro head and shoulders in the lead for the 2022 presidential election. And while it remains too early to predict how the race will end, not a single credible alternative has emerged.

If Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent moves allow him to approve a bold welfare-transfer program from 2021 and beyond, the 2022 election will be his to lose.[/restricted]


How liberalization paved the way for populists in Brazil

While the rise of populist politicians in the U.S. and Europe attracts significant attention from the media and researchers alike, the drivers of populism taking hold in emerging and developing economies still receive relatively little scrutiny.

But a new working paper, called “Roots of dissent: Trade liberalization and the rise of populism in Brazil,” provides new evidence tracing the rise of populism in Brazil — through both the victory of presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2002, and Jair Bolsonaro, in 2018 – to regional economic shocks caused by a process of trade liberalization that began in the early 1990s.[restricted]

Both Lula and Mr. Bolsonaro were able to mobilize voters by amplifying divisions caused by these trade shocks and subsequent periods of austerity. However, the two leaders were elected on very different platforms and at diametrically opposed points of the political spectrum.

Economic shocks of the 1990s

In 1990, the government of Fernando Collor de Mello began implementing a vast program of trade liberalization in an attempt to modernize the Brazilian economy. Between 1990 and 1995, import tariffs were reduced from an average of 30.5 to just 12.8 percent. 

This reduction was not equally distributed across regions and sectors, however. For instance, while the level of tariff changes in the agriculture and mining sectors was relatively small, import tariffs for clothing and rubber were cut by over 30 percent — and local producers had to deal with an influx of cheaper foreign products that drove many out of business.

Indeed, with different sectors being more prevalent in certain parts of the country, the impact of tariff changes varied from region to region. Those which saw significant cuts were left more vulnerable to international competition, affecting the labor market and the very structure of their economy. 

This shock led to long-lasting declines in formal employment and wages relative to other regions. The map below shows, for example, that some of Brazil’s largest cities — including Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro — were highly affected by tariff changes.

Tariff reductions by Brazilian microregion

import tariffs
Regions with darker units faced the largest reductions in the level of tariffs

As our analysis shows, these effects persisted for decades and affected the political preferences of Brazilians. We found that the microregions which experienced the largest tariff cuts in the early 1990s were more prone to vote both for Lula in 2002 and Mr. Bolsonaro in 2018 — despite their profound political differences.

Presidential votes by microregion

Regions with darker colours show the largest shares of votes for Lula (2002) and for Bolsonaro (2018).
Regions with darker colors show the largest shares of votes for Lula (2002) and for Bolsonaro (2018)

The effects of trade reforms were further amplified by periods of austerity that hit Brazil just before the 2002 and 2018 elections. Both Lula and Jair Bolsonaro exploited the effects of austerity and previous effects of the trade shocks by building political agendas that appealed to voters who had lost out either economically or socially from the interaction between these economic shocks.

From left-wing to right-wing populism

But while these economic factors are directly linked to the rise of populism, they don’t explain its different guises. Lula’s left-wing platform was very different from Mr. Bolsonaro’s far-right agenda. This dramatic swing to the left in 2002, and to the right in 2018 can be explained by the different political strategies Lula and Mr. Bolsonaro used to capture sufficiently large constituencies.

On the left, Lula took advantage of the austerity policies of his predecessors in the early 2000s — which led to dramatic rises in inequality — to amplify economic cleavages in society. Lula’s brand of populism resulted in one of the largest social protection programs in the world, and significant reductions in poverty and inequality. 

But these achievements were marred by accusations of corruption and economic mismanagement, for which Lula was convicted and imprisoned between 2018 and 2019.

Populism follows austerity

GDP growth rate (left axis) and social spending (right axis) between 1995 and 2018
GDP growth rate (left axis) and social spending (right axis) between 1995 and 2018

On the right, Bolsonaro took advantage of the austerity policies implemented between 2015 and 2018 by the governments of Dilma Rousseff — Lula’s successor — and Michel Temer, who took office after Ms. Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment. 

Mr. Bolsonaro also played on voters’ feelings of insecurity by promoting a strongman image, strengthening social and cultural divisions, and anti-migration sentiment. His variety of populism has resulted in the reversal of decades of economic development and climate adaptation and one of the world’s largest Covid-19 death rates.

Across the world, the shortcomings of populist agendas in Mexico, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and India, among others, have been laid bare by their failures to contain the spread of infections and death rates caused by the pandemic. 

Yet, the success of populist politicians lies in appealing to existing economic and social divisions. 

Given Brazil’s experience, there are now fears that the entrenchment of populism could reverse decades of development and threaten democracy itself across many other parts of the world.

the conversation brazil article
Originally published on
The Conversation
The Conversation



Open bars and closed schools: Brazil and Argentina go six months without classes

Six months after schools were closed due to Covid-19 isolation measures around South America, the continent’s two largest economies have yet to resume in-person classes, bar some sporadic experiments.

In the last three months, major cities in Brazil and Argentina have gradually resumed activities that may cause public gatherings. Bars in Buenos Aires reopened in early September, while shopping malls in São Paulo have been operating since as early as July — albeit with strict security protocols. In Rio de Janeiro, beaches have been busy since August, where mask use has been low. The city’s idyllic sands were packed on the national September 7 holiday.

Meanwhile, with this tentative return of leisure, neither country has made any significant progress on establishing specific protocols for educational facilities [restricted]to resume their in-person activities without jeopardizing the safety of students and their families. With little scientific information available on the effect of opening schools on the Covid-19 contagion curve — and the proximity of municipal elections in Brazil — the debate on opening schools is defined by the fear of families, opposition from teachers, and political calculations from politicians.

While they appear to be in the same boat, the neighboring countries have approached the issue in different ways, with a sudden change to distance learning.

Like in Brazil, the public education system in Argentina is mostly provincial, depending on local governments. But while Argentina’s Ministry of Education took the lead in putting forward guidelines to continue the school year, its counterparts in Brazil washed their hands of the problem, placing all of the responsibility on individual state administrations to work out their own rules.

Brazil: four Education Ministers in two years

Ivan Gontijo, project coordinator at NGO Todos pela Educação, points out that political instability in the field of education has also played an important role in the Brazilian Education Ministry’s lack of centralization in adopting schooling guidelines during the pandemic.

In less than two years of Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, Brazil has already had four Education Ministers — three of them during the pandemic. Another problem with the department, according to Mr. Gontijo, is the “very low technical capacity of execution” among occupants of high-level positions. “These are people who do not know the educational policy in-depth,” he says.

For Mr. Gontijo, an example of the Education Minister’s lack of interest in its own field of jurisdiction was the recent approval of the Basic Education Fund (Fundeb) in Congress — a process in which the department had practically no participation.

“The Education Ministry could have played a much more relevant role during the pandemic, with the provision of structured materials and increased connectivity for students who do not have internet access,” laments Mr. Gontijo. “We can’t say it would change the scenario, but it would certainly help  municipal and state networks to go through this period in a more structured way.”

According to data from Inep, a research institute linked to the Education Ministry, in 2019, almost 80 percent of students in urban schools were enrolled in institutions of the Brazilian public basic education system — which ranges from early childhood education to high school.

The ICT Education survey of the same year, conducted by the Regional Center of Studies for the Development of the Information Society (, showed that among students in urban public schools, 31 percent had a desktop computer at home, 35% had a laptop, and 26% had a tablet. Among students in private schools, these rates jumped to 54% with a desktop computer, 71% with a laptop, and 44% with a tablet.

Inequality in access to tools for remote education is only the tip of the iceberg of a slow process of universalization of education that was only completed at the beginning of the 21st century. “Our difficulty was quality. We had universalized education, but we still couldn’t deliver quality education. In the pandemic, we regressed in terms of access to education. The poorest children didn’t have access to school activities this year,” laments Mr. Gontijo.

Argentina: federal government takes the lead

Indeed, federal involvement is one of the major education differences between Brazil and its neighbors south of the River Plate. In Argentina, the universalization of education took place almost a century earlier. Pablo Pineau, a Ph.D. in education from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and a university and high school teacher, believes that the long duration of widespread access to Argentinian education has played an important role in responding to the challenges of the pandemic. However, he says it is not the only factor he sees as a successful response in reducing the impact on education in the country.

“The pandemic is a biological and also a social fact. It was inevitable that something we knew only through science fiction would cause profound impacts on society as a whole and increase the distance in access to education,” Mr. Pineau analyzes. “There is an enormous force of expulsion and a not so great force of retention. If educational systems hadn’t responded so quickly, the distance would have been even greater.”

In July, the Argentinian Education Ministry published a report in which it analyzed the continuity of lessons for students from the country’s public and private systems. In evaluating factors such as the frequency of completing school tasks, communication between schools and families, and technologies used to carry out tasks, the department concluded that at the primary level, continuity in learning hit 97 and 98 percent in the public and private networks, respectively.

In secondary schooling, the difference was slightly greater, with 93 percent for students from the public network and 96 percent for private students.

This situation of relative parity has occurred even though access to tools for remote education remains unequal in Argentina. According to the same report, during the country’s isolation measures, 36 percent of primary public school students had access to a stable internet connection at home, compared to 65 percent of private school students. 

“There is inequality in access to devices and connections. Then there is a second inequality, which is the use of technology. Finally, there is a third inequality in the educational use of technology. Whereas today everything is on the internet, before everything was in the library. But it is necessary to learn how to research and organize. What is clear is that technology and teaching are not the same things. Teaching is something more complex.”

Mr. Pineau points out that Argentina has seen precisely what Ivan Gontijo laments has not been possible in Brazil: a leading role of the federal government in the formulation of educational policies, with the production of radio and television programs and distribution of textbooks, but also “enormous creativity among teachers.”

“We are federal countries, but there is a national state. The provinces are not autonomous entities and the national state cannot respond as if the provinces were another country,” he argued. “It is necessary to guarantee the right to education of all students in the country. In Argentina, the federal government has taken on this responsibility.”[/restricted]

Coronavirus Power

Coronavirus corruption a new headache for Brazilian governors

Allegations of corruption linked to the misuse of the state’s coronavirus budget have led to the downfall of Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, who has been suspended from office and awaits an impeachment trial that is almost certainly going to go against him. Now, the Federal Police is zeroing in on at least six other state governors suspected of mishandling funds earmarked for the anti-Covid-19 effort. Meanwhile, investigations into the misappropriation of funds have been opened in all 27 Brazilian states.

With the arrival of the coronavirus, Congress quickly declared a nationwide state of emergency until December 2020. In practical terms, this move lifted a series of controls on public procurements, to allow for local administrations to respond to the crisis as quickly as possible, purchasing medicine and equipment, and hiring staff. However, this period of “anything goes” also offers a golden opportunity for dishonest politicians to siphon public money into their personal bank accounts.[restricted]

So far, four governors have been directly targeted by police operations. Besides Mr. Witzel, the Feds have also gone after Wilson Lima in Amazonas, Helder Barbalho in Pará, and Carlos Moisés in Santa Catarina. Investigators believe these governors helped — or failed to prevent — the embezzlement of over BRL 4 billion (USD 708 million) from state coronavirus funds.

The latest Covid corruption scandal

Pará Governor Helder Barbalho
Pará Governor Helder Barbalho. Photo: Ag.Pará

On Tuesday, the Federal Police targeted Pará Governor Helder Barbalho — carrying out search and seizure operations at his home and offices, as well as arresting two members of his cabinet and one senior aide. The group is suspected of defrauding public procurements for ventilators to be used by Covid-19 patients. 

The equipment — which didn’t even work properly — was allegedly overpriced by nearly 90 percent, and the bidding process was considered to be rigged. Dozens of arrest orders were issued, and the courts froze Mr. Barbalho’s assets. According to Francisco Falcão, a judge on Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice, the governor was “instrumental” in the prosperity of the scheme, saying there is “robust evidence that the governor was aware and participated in the criminal enterprise.”

Prosecutors say Mr. Barbalho is the ringleader of the ploy, and claim to have proof that he met with corrupt business owners before launching procurement processes in order to negotiate kickbacks.

In a statement, the government of Pará claims to support “any investigation that seeks to protect public money.”

Corruption worsened Latin America’s coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus has killed over 1 million people worldwide — 14 percent of these deaths occurred in Brazil. According to a report by Reuters, if the city of Rio de Janeiro were its own country, it would be the global leader in deaths per 1 million inhabitants. 

And while inequality, misinformation, and high levels of informal labor might have been the biggest factors for Latin America to become the global epicenter of the pandemic, it is undeniable that corruption by elected officials hampered the ability of the region’s countries to respond to the outbreak more efficiently.

Investigators in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru claim that local leaders filled their pockets with public money through rigged procurement processes for materials to fight the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, four of these five countries figure among the nations with most deaths per capita.

Data from investigators show that nearly every single piece of material was overpriced in a number regions — including hand sanitizer and gauze pads. In their defense, most of the governors under scrutiny place the blame on private companies — whom they accuse of jacking up prices as demand grew, and insisting on receiving payments up front.[/restricted]

Coronavirus Power

Sacked Health Minister lifts lid on Bolsonaro’s Covid-19 response

Acrimoniously sacked as Health Minister in mid-April — and mid-pandemic — Luiz Henrique Mandetta has released a tell-all book covering events between January and April 16, when he was relieved of his duties after prolonged squabbles with President Jair Bolsonaro.

In “Um paciente chamado Brasil” (freely translated as “A Patient Called Brazil”), Mr. Mandetta displays his utter stupefaction with President Bolsonaro’s attitudes during the early weeks and months of the coronavirus epidemic in Brazil — from the conspiracy theories Mr. Bolsonaro used to explain the outbreak, to his denialism of the disease, and “magical” solutions for the virus.[restricted]

According to the former Health Minister, not only did Jair Bolsonaro publicly belittle the severity of Covid-19, but he also did not show interest in projecting the outcome of the epidemic or issuing protective measures to the population. Neither did he show any empathy for the droves of grieving families who lost loved ones to the disease.

“For [Mr.] Bolsonaro, the solution was always simple: his project to fight the pandemic was to say that the government has the medicine and whoever takes the medicine will be fine. The only people who will die are those who would have died regardless for another reason,” Mr. Mandetta wrote.

Key takeaways from former Health Minister Mandetta’s book

The book claims that the president ignored warnings from the Health Ministry, even with concrete numbers displayed to all present at a hurriedly organized meeting on March 28 at Mr. Bolsonaro’s official residence. At the time, ministry experts projected a total of 30,000 deaths as a best-case scenario — which Mr. Mandetta called “overly optimistic” — and up to 180,000 deaths if isolation measures were not put in place. Brazil reached a total of 140,000 Covid-19 victims on Friday.

At the end of the meeting in question, Mr. Mandetta says that the president’s concerns were elsewhere. “Are you going to praise [São Paulo Governor João] Doria?” he asked, according to the book. The then-Health Minister then confirmed that he would in fact speak positively about the head of the São Paulo, saying that Mr. Bolsonaro would be on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s side if he continued to deny the severity of the epidemic. Irritated, Mr. Bolsonaro adjourned the meeting.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta describes another encounter, once again in the president’s official residence, when Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to “use his pen” against cabinet ministers who had “become stars.” Days before, opinion polls showed that Mr. Mandetta had higher approval ratings than the president himself. The Health Minister accused Mr. Bolsonaro of being disloyal and threatening him. “I told him, in my state, if someone says ‘your time will come,’ it’s a death threat.” President Bolsonaro, he writes, remained quiet while military figures attempted to stop the head of state from firing his Health Minister.

The book depicts the moment when President Bolsonaro began contradicting the Health Ministry, speaking out against social isolation and pushing for the adoption of anti-malarial drug chloroquine as something of a ‘miracle cure’ for Covid-19, despite a lack of evidence of its effectiveness. At one meeting, says Mr. Mandetta, the president suggested that changes be made to the medicine’s label in order to increase supply. The measure was contested by health regulators.

Onyx devious and Guedes oblivious

Um paciente chamado Brasil” does not focus solely on former Health Minister Mandetta’s rifts with the president, but also concerns cases with other high-ranking members of the government. At one cabinet meeting, he writes that Economy Minister Paulo Guedes became infuriated upon finding out that medicine prices in Brazil obey a predefined reference table, despite the fact that his department is a part of the council that decides on said fixed prices.

A former ally of Mr. Mandetta, Citizenship Minister Onyx Lorenzoni gets his own chapter in the book.

When discussing a leaked recording of Mr. Lorenzoni and then-Citizenship Minister Osmar Terra plotting the Health Minister’s downfall, Mr. Mandetta highlighted a curious fact about Mr. Lorenzoni.

During the heyday of Operation Car Wash, Onyx Lorenzoni secretly recorded a meeting among colleagues in the Democratas party — of which Messrs. Mandetta and Lorenzoni are members — in which they discussed anti-corruption measures. He was ostracized by his peers when this came to light, until being restored to the top table with the election of Jair Bolsonaro.[/restricted]


Brazil’s prosecutor general: unbiased professional, or Bolsonaro’s lackey?

Handpicked by President Jair Bolsonaro last September, Brazil’s Prosecutor General Augusto Aras is about to complete a full year in office. Initially depicted as the president’s strawman, Mr. Aras used his inauguration speech to reinforce his “unwavering commitment to [fighting] corruption,” while stressing that the Federal Prosecution Service he now oversees must be “pledged to the true spirit of the Constitution.”

His stint as prosecutor general has so far been littered with controversy, with questionable decisions that have led to internal and external criticism. Mr. Aras’s vow against corruption has been called into doubt, thanks to his series of attacks against Operation Car Wash — the largest anti-corruption investigation in Brazil’s history.[restricted]

Indeed, several of his decisions have raised a question mark over his actual dedication to the fight against corruption, and whether he is simply in the role of prosecutor general to act as President Bolsonaro’s lackey.

Just last week, Augusto Aras made at least three statements in favor of the Bolsonaro family. On Thursday, he told the Supreme Court that Senator Flávio Bolsonaro should be given the right to jurisdictional prerogative in the corruption case currently brewing in Rio de Janeiro.

When the events that make up the inquiry took place, Flávio Bolsonaro was a member of Rio state congress, meaning that — by the letter of the law — the president’s oldest son should not be granted any parliamentary jurisdictional benefits.

Mr. Aras also shelved a request to place President Bolsonaro under investigation for threatening a reporter from newspaper O Globo — Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to “punch [his] face in” — claiming the president enjoyed immunity.

He also ruled in favor of Mr. Bolsonaro in stating the president’s verified social media accounts should not be considered “official,” giving the head of state the right to block users as he sees fit. This statement came in a case pending before the Supreme Court, filed by a lawyer who was blocked by the president on Twitter.

Suing President Bolsonaro

The major litmus test of Mr. Aras’s time in office concerns a complaint issued by former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who directly accused President Bolsonaro of undue interference in the Federal Police. The Brazilian Report spoke with several sources within the Prosecutor General’s Office, Planalto Palace, Supreme Court, and the General Counsel for the Federal Government — the general feeling is that Augusto Aras will nix Mr. Moro’s plea and save the president from investigation.

Before this, one of the most controversial decisions of the prosecutor general’s time in office also concerns Sergio Moro. Prior to examining whether Mr. Moro’s accusations are based in fact, Mr. Aras named the former Justice Minister as a suspect for alleged malfeasance. 

One source from within the Prosecutor General’s Office called Augusto Aras’s attitude towards Mr. Moro in the investigation as “subtle, but uncommon,” saying that it works in Jair Bolsonaro’s favor.

Indeed, the president’s allies are prepared to submit appeals in the case and are wary of celebrating prematurely. “In legal matters, you never know what’s around the corner,” said one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s interlocutors. However, all are in agreement about the “signals [Mr.] Aras is making.”

Constitutional Catch 22

Michael Mohallem, a law professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, says that the appointment of the Federal Prosecutor General is one of the weak links left by the Brazilian Constitution when it comes to the autonomy of the prosecution service. “The institutional framework does not favor independent stances from the [Prosecutor General] as the president is not forced to choose a candidate from the three-person list of suggestions [prepared by prosecutors],” he explains.

“It’s not unconstitutional, but it weakens the situation, as it allows any person who is close and aligned with the president to be given the job. It’s one thing to evaluate technical requirements, it’s another to evaluate preferences. One of the central responsibilities of the Prosecutor General is to carry out oversight on the Executive branch. If he/she is aligned [with the government], that’s a flaw.”

When appointing Augusto Aras as Prosecutor General, Jair Bolsonaro turned his back on a tradition in place since 2003, by which the president would choose the new head of the prosecution service in accordance with a three-person list of nominees selected by professionals in the field. Over the last 17 years, only President Michel Temer selected the second-name on this list — Mr. Aras’s predecessor, Raquel Dodge. On all other occasions, Brazil’s presidents have chosen the prosecutor with the most votes among their peers. 

Augusto Aras wasn’t even on the list presented to Mr. Bolsonaro.

Beyond simply having been handpicked by the president, suspicions around the prosecutor general’s credibility are increased by subtle hints from Jair Bolsonaro that Mr. Aras could be in the running for a seat on the Supreme Court. Two justices will retire before the end of Mr. Bolsonaro’s term and the chance of a spot on the country’s highest court could be making Augusto Aras toe the government line.

This issue is repeated to exhaustion among legal scholars and Mr. Aras’s peers. “Even if the prosecutor general has a neutral legal view, without bias, the doubt and mistrust around his actions weigh heavily against the image of his office. It’s not enough to have integrity, in this case, it is important that society perceives him as someone who works without political bias,” stresses Mr. Mohallem.

The law professor points out another problem with the constitutional rules regarding the role of prosecutor general: the possibility of being granted a further term after two years. “If someone does the job independently, if they file complaints against the president, cabinet ministers — in other words, if they do their job properly — there is a chance that the president will not want to give the prosecutor another term, inhibiting their work.”[/restricted]


Bolsonaro’s misinformed address to the United Nations

In 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shocked the world with a speech at the United Nations that was filled with disinformation and elements of domestic culture wars — nothing for international consumption, but purely for his own support base in Brazil. On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Bolsonaro’s second hurrah at the UN General Assembly touched on more international topics, but once again relied heavily on gaslighting the global audience — giving fact-checking agencies a field day.

In 14 and a half minutes, Mr. Bolsonaro made six false statements and five claims that were baseless or exaggerated.

Readers of The Brazilian Report already knew what to expect, as we reported last week that Mr. Bolsonaro had ordered his advisors to “dig up all the data that can put Brazil in a positive light compared to other countries.” 

The most noteworthy part of the speech, however, [restricted]concerned Brazil’s positioning between the U.S. and China — especially in light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s slim re-election prospects. (Statistics website FiveThirtyEight gives challenger Joe Biden a 77-percent chance to unseat Mr. Trump.)

Mr. Bolsonaro said Brazil is open to the development of flagship technology, including 5G, with “any partner that respects our sovereignty, and cherishes freedom and data protection.” One Brazilian diplomat, who requested to remain anonymous, told The Brazilian Report that this was a nod to the U.S.’s lobby for countries to ban Chinese firm Huawei from 5G auctions — “while leaving the door open for a U-turn if necessary.”

Later in his speech, the president would make two more gestures toward Mr. Trump. 

First, by lashing out at Venezuela’s “Bolivarian dictatorship,” just days after a visit by Mike Pompeo to the Brazil-Venezuela border, during which the U.S. Secretary of State called Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a “drug dealer.”

Then, he mentioned Mr. Trump by name in praising his Peace to Prosperity plan as a “promising vision [to reach a] much-desired solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

What to make of Bolsonaro’s UN speech

Aware of his woeful international image, the president adopted a defensive stance, deflecting the blame for the coronavirus crisis — Brazil has the world’s third-highest number of cases and second-highest of deaths — and for the recent environmental disasters ongoing in the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands.

Instead, Mr. Bolsonaro pointed the finger at Brazil’s Supreme Court, state governors, indigenous groups, and alleged “shady interests” of global powers that want to prey on Brazil’s natural resources.

Below, we analyze the main points of Mr. Bolsonaro’s opening speech at the 75th UN General Assembly.

Coronavirus crisis in Brazil

Mr. Bolsonaro opened by briefly lamenting the almost 140,000 coronavirus deaths in the country. However, he claimed that from the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, he has alerted the country about two crises: the spread of Covid-19 and the imminent job apocalypse — adding that he said both should be treated with the same importance. On May 1, we showed that was false.

“Mr. Bolsonaro once again washed his hands [of responsibility] for the pandemic, blaming the only possible policy to fight the virus we know at this moment: social isolation. The president also undermined science and patted himself on the back for things he did not do to mitigate the crisis,” says political scientist Carlos Melo, a professor at the São Paulo-based Insper Business School.

The president also praised Brazil’s coronavirus emergency salary, which has reduced poverty in Brazil to unprecedented levels — albeit only temporarily — and helped millions of citizens who lost the entirety of their income during the pandemic. It is worth mentioning, however, that Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration originally wanted to pay much smaller benefits to the population — but was outmuscled by Congress. 

The environmental disaster

At no point did Mr. Bolsonaro own up to his administration’s faults in managing the environmental crisis, instead claiming Brazil is the “victim of one of the most brutal disinformation campaigns” in the world, carried out by “international institutions and exploitative and unpatriotic Brazilian associations” whose goal is to hurt the government and the country.

But it is impossible to fight with the facts. Since the beginning of the year, fires in the Pantanal wetlands have already destroyed 19 percent of the entire region — which is the largest wetland in the world. Also, at least 90 percent of the main conservation site dedicated to research in the area, the Sesc Pantanal Reserve, was ravaged by blazes.

Shifting attention from land to sea, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that, in 2019, “Brazil was a victim of a criminal oil spill caused by Venezuela,” that caused environmental destruction on the country’s north-eastern coast. However, the Brazilian Federal Police later ended its investigation without officially holding Venezuela responsible. While the oil was of Venezuelan origin, the Feds were unable to conclude whether the ship responsible for the spill left from Venezuelan ports, or whether the incident was in fact a criminal spill.

Bolsonaro on indigenous populations

In last year’s General Assembly speech, Brazil’s far-right leader was critical of the country’s indigenous activists. The traditional communities were not left out of Mr. Bolsonaro’s address on Tuesday either, with the head of state blaming indigenous people for burning the Amazon rainforest. But the Federal Police has already found evidence that landowners are the ones responsible for igniting wildfires, in order to clear space for pastures.

He also said the federal government “gave assistance to over 200,000 indigenous families with food products and Covid-19 prevention products.” In reality, Mr. Bolsonaro did the opposite, vetoing a piece of legislation that would force the government to provide these communities with safe drinking water, hygiene products, and hospital beds.

The Brazilian Report has already exposed the worrisome situation of Brazil’s indigenous groups during the pandemic. Until August 22, according to the Articulation of Indigenous People, at least 700 indigenous people died due to Covid-19 — but anthropologists say the real figures are much higher.

The economy and foreign trade

Brazil’s nonchalant approach to the environmental crisis might cost the country its biggest diplomatic success under Jair Bolsonaro: the signing of a free-trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur, after more than 20 years of negotiations. 

A group of eight European countries — which account for 10 percent of Brazil’s agricultural exports — have formally asked the Bolsonaro administration to take “real action” against deforestation in the Amazon, adding that “the current trend is making it increasingly difficult for businesses and investors to meet their environmental, social, and governance criteria.”

Meanwhile, a group of 30 NGOs, including Greenpeace France, demanded that French President Emmanuel Macron “bury [the EU-Mercosur deal] once and for all,” citing its potentially “disastrous” impacts on forests, the climate, and human rights.

Mr. Bolsonaro seemed unfazed by the pressure, claiming he trusts in Brazil’s efforts to advance these agreements and even supported an overhaul of the World Trade Organization (WTO) — one again, falling in line with U.S. President Donald Trump.[/restricted]

Coronavirus Power

Brazil Senate goes back work after high-profile Covid party

After a six-month coronavirus hiatus, the Brazilian Senate is once again holding in-person sittings. And the upper house hasn’t beaten around the bush, approving a request to summon Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo to provide clarifications about the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Brazil-Venezuela border.

But while a return is necessary — Congress has conducted its debates and votes remotely, but the pandemic has halted all activity in issue-based committees — it seems ill-timed. Senators are returning to meet in person just 12 days after a massive dinner party held at the official residence of House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who has since tested positive for the coronavirus.[restricted]

The Covid party

The September 9 event — gathering everyone who’s anyone in Brasília politics — was in celebration of the inauguration of Luiz Fux as the new Supreme Court Chief Justice. Members of Congress were in attendance, as well as members of high courts, and prominent business owners.

While no-one is keen to owe up to the fact, The Brazilian Report was able to confirm that — beyond Mr. Maia and the guest of honor, Chief Justice Fux — among those in attendance were next-door neighbor Senate President Davi Alcolumbre, senators Nelsinho Trad and Chico Rodrigues, and lower house members Baleia Rossi, Carlos Sampaio, Efraim Filho, Fábio Trad, Marcos Pereira, Aguinaldo Ribeiro, and Arthur Lira. 

On the day after Luiz Fux was sworn in as Chief Justice, at least six authorities confirmed they had contracted Covid-19. Besides Mr. Maia and Chief Justice Fux, Attorney General Augusto Aras, head of the Superior Labor Court Maria Cristina Peduzzi, and Superior Court of Justice members Luís Felipe Salomão and Antonio Saldanha Palheiro. 

In the Senate, 38 of the 81 members are aged over 60, and several suffer from pre-existing conditions that pose Covid-19 risks, such as obesity and high blood pressure. The chamber’s press office did not respond to The Brazilian Report‘s inquiry about how many senators have been infected by the coronavirus, saying it “habitually does not divulge Covid-19 case numbers among its employees and members.”

According to Agência Senado, six senators had contracted Covid-19 until June, including Senate President Alcolumbre.

The Senate’s return to work is regulated by a normative act issued last week, which sees the installation of hand sanitizer dispensers at strategic locations in the chamber, increased distancing between senators on the floor, and ‘drive-thru’ voting stations allowing at-risk politicians to stay out of the main chamber.[/restricted]


2020 Election: What is at stake in São Paulo and Rio

Brazil’s mid-term municipal elections are often seen by parties as a dress rehearsal for national races. History suggests that local disputes often anticipate trends that we will observe two years later, when presidential and gubernatorial candidates square off. In 2020, the municipal election will be as national as ever, with all the main presidential hopefuls using the November 15 vote to set up alliances that could carry them over the finish line in 2022.

In this game, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are disproportionately important, as the country’s two most-populated and wealthiest cities — with a combined GDP of nearly BRL 1 trillion (USD 190 billion), or 10 percent of the Brazilian economy. These two cities alone, account for over 9 percent of the Brazilian electorate.

Both races, however, are up in the air, less than two months before Election Day. We explain what is at stake in each of them.[restricted]

Key points in the 2020 election

  • While reelection rates are extremely high in state and national races, the same doesn’t happen for municipal disputes. The percentage of mayors who were granted a second term has continually decreased since 2008 to an all-time low of 21 percent in 2016.
  • The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) will try to preserve its dominance in major urban centers. Of Brazil’s biggest 96 cities, the PSDB is the ruling party in 30 of them. That is thanks to its continuous shift towards a “hard right” after leaving power in 2002 (especially on crime-related issues) and consolidating itself as the main opposition force against the Workers’ Party until Jair Bolsonaro emerged on the national scene. It remains to be seen how the rise of  Mr. Bolsonaro will disrupt PSDB’s prestige among conservative voters.
  • Meanwhile, the Workers’ Party is toothless and its power resides in smaller, poorer cities. Back in 2008, when then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had 80-percentish approval ratings, the party snatched up 25 of the country’s 96 biggest cities — more than any other political group. But in the 2020 election it held none of these cities. Both in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, however, the party has picked veteran candidates who lack the capacity to galvanize its own militants, let alone disillusioned voters in two cities where the Workers’ Party has become a bogeyman for large parts of the electorate.
  • We also must keep an eye on what role President Jair Bolsonaro will play in the election. As we anticipated in September 15 Daily Briefing, the president has refrained itself from publicly endorsing any candidate before the runoff stage, but is engaged in backstage negotiations with the goal to hurt his political enemies — i.e. the Workers’ Party and former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta. However, as a Bolsonaro aid told The Brazilian Report, “the president is unpredictable, and could decide to do a photo op with a candidate of his choice out of the blue.”

São Paulo’s mayoral race

The São Paulo mayoral race still has no clear-cut favorite, according to consultancy Atlas Político. The first major poll of this electoral cycle shows incumbent Mayor Bruno Covas polling at 16 percent — with left candidate Guilherme Boulos and Congressman Celso Russomano tied in second place, with 12 percent each. Meanwhile, 13 percent of voters in Brazil’s largest city still don’t know who they will vote for in November. 

Mr. Covas apparently has the inside lane, but it remains too early to slap him with the favorite tag. With the pandemic, the election has remained as a background subject — and early polls usually reflect more name recognition rather than popularity. He is backed by Governor João Doria — who has been quite open about his own presidential ambitions. A display of strength in São Paulo could help enhance his profile with voters outside of his home state.

Meanwhile, Mr. Russomano has tried all sorts of alliances over the past few weeks, but has come out still empty-handed. Still, he enjoys Mr. Bolsonaro’s sympathy — and could have his support should he reach the runoff stage, which is far from a certain thing. “Celso Russomano usually has strong polling numbers at the start of the mayoral race, but then his candidacy loses steam,” says Cristiano Noronha, a political scientist at consultancy Arko Advice. 

“However, support from Jair Bolsonaro could change his fortunes.” In 2018, the president won 60 percent of São Paulo votes in the runoff election.

The race in Rio de Janeiro

It is no overstatement to say that Rio de Janeiro is facing a municipal election while it descends further and further into a true political hell. Mayor Marcelo Crivella has just escaped his fifth impeachment, amid investigations that he ran a mafia-like scheme within City Hall to embezzle public funds — and launder money through evangelical churches.

But corruption allegations are not even the biggest obstacle in Mr. Crivella’s way. His administration has been rated as “disastrous” by most observers, and only 14 percent of voters approved of his job, according to a March 2020 poll. The city is nearly bankrupt, and most basic services are subpar at best. For 68 percent of voters, the municipal healthcare system is the city’s biggest problem — topping by far concerns about urban violence. 

Don’t expect any push for renewal in Rio, as the race’s head-and-shoulders favorite is Eduardo Paes, Mr. Crivella’s predecessor, who is vying for a third term as mayor. However, he has been recently accused by state prosecutors of pocketing BRL 10.8 million from construction group Odebrecht during his 2012 re-election campaign. He dismissed the probe as an attempt to interfere with the upcoming municipal elections.

But even Mr. Paes has not been able to excite voters. His leading 19-percent polling is below the 22 percent of voters who intend to spoil their ballots on November 15.[/restricted]


It’s impeachment season in Brazil

It has become a cliché to say that the pandemic has precipitated processes that already existed. For Richard N. Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, “Covid-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it.” In the case of Brazilian politics, this accelerated history means a faster process of political degradation. On September 17, a grand total of three separate impeachment proceedings will be voted on by legislators — which could result in the ousting of two state governors and one mayor.

To borrow from Tolstoi, every administration close to impeachment is crumbling in its own way. So we break down what is at stake here.[restricted]

impeachment crivella witzel moises
From left to right: Wilson Witzel, Carlos Moisés, Marcelo Crivella

Suspended Rio Governor Wilson Witzel

Of all high-profile politicians facing impeachment, none looks more doomed than Rio de Janeiro’s suspended Governor Wilson Witzel. He is accused of siphoning funds from the state’s Covid-19 emergency budget and launder kickbacks through his wife’s law firm.

Back in June, lawmakers opened impeachment proceedings in an unprecedented 69-0 vote against Mr. Witzel, showing how politically weak the Governor has become. His suspension also deprives him of his ability to distribute patronage which can be so persuasive in such situations.

At this point, a committee of 25 state lawmakers will decide whether or not to start an impeachment trial against Mr. Witzel — and anything other than a green light would be a shocker.

UPDATE: The committee unanimously voted for the impeachment process to continue, in yet another sign of Mr. Witzel’s lack of political support.

Mr. Witzel’s downfall is set to be as meteoric as his rise. In Rio’s 2018 gubernatorial race, he went from unknown candidate to winner in a matter of days, riding the conservative wave headed by Jair Bolsonaro. But after presenting himself as a possible challenger in the 2022 presidential election, relations between the two soured.

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Marcelo Crivella

Marcello Crivella has proven to have many political lives. Despite overseeing an administration deemed as “catastrophic” by almost everyone, he has escaped four impeachment requests — the last of which was voted down just two weeks ago.

This time around, Mr. Crivella is accused of running a corruption ring inside City Hall, using evangelical churches (he is a preacher ) to launder the embezzled money. 

City councilors will vote on whether or not to kick-off an impeachment process, but despite the ongoing criminal investigation against the mayor, he is set to dodge impeachment yet again. Mr. Crivella is likely to limp his way into the November election, when he will ask for a new four-year term.

UPDATE: In a 24-20 vote, city councilors rejected the impeachment request, with six abstentions.

Santa Catarina Governor Carlos Moisés

Conservative Governor Carlos Moisés is accused of fiscal irresponsibility, for granting wage bumps to state prosecutors without authorization from lawmakers.

The impeachment process against him, as a matter of fact, is at a later stage than those of Messrs. Witzel and Crivella. A report recommending his ousting has been approved by a special committee, and now a roll call vote will seal his fate.

It will take 27 of the State Congress’ 40 members to remove Mr. Moisés.

UPDATE: Santa Catarina lawmakers voted in favor of opening impeachment proceedings against Carlos Moisés. Now, a committee formed by five lawmakers, five state judges, and the president of the Santa Catarina Court of Justice will have five days to analyze the accusations against the governor.



Bolsonaro’s ‘secret weapon’ dead on arrival

During the 2018 campaign and until this year, President Jair Bolsonaro came across as one of those politicians who believe the state should not give handouts to its citizens. He once compared the world-renowned Bolsa Família cash-transfer initiative to a vote-for-cash graft, saying it amounted to “nothing more than taking money from those who produce and hand it to those who are lazy, so people would keep the status quo.”

 As a candidate, he promised to audit the program and refused to rule out shutting it down. During his first year in office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration cut Bolsa Família to the bone, true to his words.

But then came the pandemic — and the Brazilian government was forced to implement an aid benefit to help vulnerable populations survive the crisis. And, like magic, Mr. Bolsonaro discovered the electoral dividends brought by social programs in a country as unequal as Brazil. [restricted]By giving BRL 600 (USD 113) per month to roughly 65 million people, the president saw his approval ratings soar — even in areas where he never had much support.

With that in mind, Jair Bolsonaro aimed for the left’s jugular. He had already routed the Workers’ Party in the South and Southeast regions — Brazil’s richest. Now, he would launch his own cash-transfer program to win over the Northeast — the last “red belt” standing. Announced in July as Renda Brasil (Income Brazil), the program would be a beefed-up version of Bolsa Família. It was even given the moniker “Bolso-Família.”

But Mr. Bolsonaro has cancelled Renda Brasil before it was even launched. During a live broadcast on social media, the president said the words “Renda Brasil” are now forbidden from being mentioned by government officials. 

The president’s tantrum came after members of the Economy Ministry argued that there is simply not enough money to pay for enhanced cash transfers. The Economy Ministry claims that Brazil’s public deficit is growing at an unsustainable pace and has proposed cutting benefits such as unemployment insurance and retirement pensions as a way to pay for it. 

“We will continue with Bolsa Família [until 2022]. Period,” the president declared. During the same broadcast, Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to fire anyone who even suggests cutting off social benefits from now on. “I won’t take money from the poor to give it to the pauper. Whoever proposes that will get a red card,” he said.

In the Economy Ministry, the tension is palpable.

Senior government officials told The Brazilian Report, under condition of anonymity, that Economy Minister Guedes was summoned by President Jair Bolsonaro to a meeting on Tuesday morning, “during which the president yelled a lot, and Mr. Guedes just stood in silence.” Another source said they had “never seen the president so pissed off.” 

Mr. Bolsonaro reportedly told Mr. Guedes to fire whoever was responsible for telling the press about aid-cutting plans without his authorization. That would be Mr. Guedes’ special secretary, Waldery Rodrigues — who could soon be heading out the door.

Why Bolsa Família is so politically important

In 2018, Sérgio Simoni Jr., a researcher at the University of Campinas’ Center of Public Opinion Studies, wrote on The Brazilian Report about the electoral impacts of Bolsa Família.

Estimates show that the higher the number of Bolsa Família beneficiaries in a given region, the higher the vote percentage for the Workers’ Party. Even out of power, with no control over the federal budget or government agenda, the Workers’ Party still benefits electorally from the program. “It is possible that a reciprocity mechanism — or the creation of a bond between party and voters — is at work here, which goes beyond an association between the program and the incumbent head of state,” he wrote.

“The arguments that social policies are types of ‘vote buying’ schemes or political patronage weaken as the party that cashes in is in the opposition,” says Mr. Simoni.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s intentions to “repeal-and-replace” Bolsa Família could be a savvy move. The program is still widely associated with the Workers’ Party and its leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Doing nothing could push his approval ratings quickly to the ground, hurting the president’s re-election bid in 2022, at best, and maybe even threatening his stability in office, at worst.[/restricted]


Supreme Court v. Bolsonaro has a new chapter

Justice Celso de Mello, the longest-serving member on the Supreme Court, is set for mandatory retirement as he turns 75 in November. His last months in the court, however, promise to be explosive — as his war of attrition against President Jair Bolsonaro continues.

The justice is the rapporteur of an investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s suspected illegal interference with the Federal Police. The probe started after former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro resigned, after accusing the president of trying to shield his family and friends from investigations by picking a friendly police chief for the Feds’ Rio de Janeiro office.

Back in May, Justice Mello made public the footage of an April 22 cabinet meeting that presented Brazilians with an explicit display of Bolsonarism in action. The president appeared on tape defending Brazilians’ right to arm themselves and fight against quarantine rules that had recently been enforced by state governors. [restricted]At one point, the pandemic was even described as an opportunity by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles. He mentioned taking advantage of the media focus on Covid-19 to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all the rules and simplifying standards.”

Then, Justice Mello sent a message to his colleagues, comparing the current moment to the crumbling of the Weimar Republic in Germany, as Adolf Hitler became chancellor. “With all necessary caveats, the ‘serpent’s egg’ seems to be ready to hatch, similar to what happened in the Weimar Republic,” he said.

Now, Justice Mello has once again put the government on the spot. He refused the Solicitor General’s request to allow Mr. Bolsonaro to give a written testimony to defend himself from the allegations of tampering with the Federal Police. Instead, the justice said that as a man “under investigation,” the president must be treated as any other citizen and not enjoy the “prerogatives usually reserved to heads of state.”

It is worth noting that other members of the Supreme Court granted that benefit to former Presidents Michel Temer and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Both found themselves facing corruption charges by Operation Car Wash. In his decision, Justice Mello said he respected his peers’ rulings, but didn’t agree with them.

Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello
Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello. Photo: STF

Fuel for an institutional crisis

“It remains to be seen how President Jair Bolsonaro will react to Justice Mello’s latest move — but we should expect a deepening institutional crisis on our way,” says political scientist Leonardo Barreto.

As The Brazilian Report revealed last month, Mr. Bolsonaro had discussed sending troops to “shut down” the Supreme Court on multiple occasions with close aides. While the president’s advisers were able to talk him out of such a move, Mr. Bolsonaro has consistently endorsed demonstrations against the Supreme Court.

And this clash comes at a time when the reputation of Brazil’s highest court has never been lower — after years of inconsistent judgements and perceived political overstepping. 

It also happens as the court has recently appointed a new Chief Justice, with Luiz Fux taking the court’s reins from Justice Dias Toffoli.

As our September 8 Weekly Report explained, Justice Toffoli’s stint as Chief Justice has been widely considered a total disaster — even by his peers — as he went out of his way to please the government. While Chief Justice Fux reportedly wants to restore the court’s image, he has a reputation of trying to appease all sides at the same time and has been a strong advocate of what he calls “institutional harmony.” 

While he insists this is not the same thing as appeasing the government, Mr. Bolsonaro has proven that he doesn’t accept disagreements harmoniously.

A divided court with a broken reputation faces an increasingly popular president who has been rather open that he would like to shut the Supreme Court down if he could get away with it. This seems like a perfect recipe for a prolonged institutional crisis. 

It remains to be seen who replaces Justice Mello, but Mr. Bolsonaro is likely to appoint a crony in his place if he can, perhaps a “terribly evangelical” judge, as he once suggested. The replacement would inherit Justice Mello’s case — meaning Jair Bolsonaro could be in the privileged position of choosing the person who will judge his alleged misdeeds.

We are confident to say that the president will be safe for the foreseeable future.[/restricted]


All São Paulo regions in advanced reopening status for the first time

For the first time since the pandemic started, all regions in the state of São Paulo are in an advanced phase of reopening. The state government’s color-based five-step reopening plan grades regions from red (when cases are going up and more restrictions are enforced), to blue (when all restrictions are lifted).

Now, all São Paulo regions are in the yellow phase — which is step 3 of 5.

são paulo

Ratings are attributed according to the trends in Covid-19 death curves, as well as intensive care units’ occupancy rates. The government will only assess regions again in October.

“In the state as a whole, the pandemic is slowing down consistently. Hospitalizations have fallen for the past eight weeks, and deaths have been down for the last five,” Governor João Doria told reporters. 

The state of São Paulo — the most-populated area in Brazil — has 874,754 confirmed coronavirus cases and 32,104 deaths with 263 new deaths recorded over the last 24 hours. In June, as a comparison, the daily death count was consistently over the 400 mark.

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Will the administrative reform pass in Congress?

This is Part 4 of The Brazilian Report’s special series on the Jair Bolsonaro administration’s proposal to reform public service in Brazil and its chances of passing in Congress. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. You can also download an eBook including all four parts at the end of this article.

Major reforms are, by nature, hard to pass in Congress. They must almost always come through amendments to the Constitution — which requires a 60-percent majority and two rounds of voting in each both the Lower House and Senate. But Jair Bolsonaro’s administrative reform has even more hurdles on its way to passing.[restricted]

For starters, the timing couldn’t be worse. The country is still trying to respond to the economic crisis inflicted by the pandemic — and there is little mood for unpopular measures. Moreover, the reform was presented just weeks before campaigns for the 2020 municipal elections are scheduled to kick-off, on September 26.

As our July 20 Weekly Report showed, one-quarter of Brazilian lawmakers face elections for municipal office. And even those who won’t run will have their eyes on local races, as they have to set up the alliances that are key for lawmakers’ re-election bids two years from now. Between September 26, when candidates are allowed to start campaigning, until November 29, when runoff elections will happen in major cities, nothing is expected to pass in Congress.

“We should return only on December 1,” says Congressman Júlio Delgado, from Minas Gerais. “And still, on December 16 we wrap up the year. There are too many things to be decided upon [regarding the reform] in just two weeks,” he adds.

Controversial reforms

As we previously explained in this series, the reform will enact the biggest changes in public service Brazil has seen since its return to democracy. Its core point is ending civil servants’ ironclad job stability, conditioning their permanence to periodic performance evaluations.

That is, however, precisely what is set to spark the fiercest debates in Congress, as the civil servant lobby is one of the strongest in Brasília. 

Another point of contention concerns a section which would enhance presidential powers over the government’s structure. The head of state would be free to alter the structure of any agency without congressional approval as long as it doesn’t raise public spending.

But as we explained in Part 1, it seems highly unlikely that Congress would waive its prerogative to approve or bring down presidential acts that reshape the government’s structure. Especially in a moment when tensions between the government and Congress are so high — to the point that House Speaker Rodrigo Maia declared that he no longer speaks to Economy Minister Paulo Guedes.

How the pandemic disrupts the reform’s calendar

Since March 20, Congress has worked remotely for the most part — and the work of various committees have been halted. However, no constitutional amendment can be voted on the floor unless it passes by multiple such committees.

While congressional leaders claim they want committees to return to action as soon as possible, it is unlikely anything will happen before the end of the municipal elections. Meaning that there is virtually no chance of the reform progressing this year.

You can download an eBook including all four parts of this series, here.[/restricted]