Old Foes Become Bolsonaro’s Best Shield Against Impeachment

(Bloomberg) -- With Latin America’s largest economy reeling from simultaneous health, political and economic crises, President Jair Bolsonaro has been quietly forging an alliance with a powerful group of centrist lawmakers he used to despise.

The deal, which entails congressional support in exchange for positions in the administration, for now may shield Bolsonaro from meaningful defeats in congress, as well as any impeachment attempts against him.

It’s an about-face for a president who was elected in 2018 promising to put an end to the “old politics” that those centrist parties have come to represent. Known in Brazil as centrao, or big center, the group has been in a cozy relationship with whomever held the nation’s top job for the past three decades.

The more Bolsonaro digs himself into a deeper political hole -- clashing with former allies, losing cabinet members and fighting off allegations of interfering in probes surrounding his family -- the more powerful the group becomes. As the coronavirus pandemic pushes the economy into a historic recession, the government will need all the support it can get to navigate the crisis.

See below why centrist parties will be key to keep Bolsonaro’s government afloat in the remaining two and a half years of his term.

Who is part of centrao?

Centrao currently comprises about 200 lawmakers from 10 center-right parties, representing about 40% of votes in the lower house of congress and roughly a third of the parties registered in Brazil. They’re mostly conservative, though they don’t strongly adhere to any ideological orientation. Traditionally, the group is never in the opposition -- it always negotiates with whoever is in power, exchanging support for political advantages and extra cash.

How was the group created?

Centrao emerged during the discussion of Brazil’s constitution in 1987, following decades of military dictatorship. Back then, it helped President Jose Sarney block the passage of a more progressive law and extended the presidential term in exchange for government positions. The group played key roles during the administrations of leftist leaders Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff -- supporting the former, and helping take down the latter. They later backed her successor Michel Temer, barring impeachment proceedings against him even as his popularity sank into the single digits.

Why is Bolsonaro turning to them?

In a fragmented congress with about 25 different parties, Bolsonaro needs to build a majority to approve legislation and stop possible impeachment proceedings. Lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who’s sitting on more than 30 requests to ouster Bolsonaro, isn’t a member of the group but has a strong rapport with centrist parties. It’s a risky strategy that may alienate Economy Minister Paulo Guedes and sabotage his fiscally conservative agenda, as centrist parties are eager to see the government loosen the purse strings.

So far, however, the government’s strategy to negotiate with similarly-minded caucuses including agribusiness and pro-guns groups has been hit or miss -- it worked during the approval of a crucial pension overhaul last year, but since then other reforms have made little progress in congress.

What have they gotten in exchange for their support?

The leaders of these parties are asking for -- and receiving -- government positions, as well as extra cash to be used in their respective constituencies. The group has taken control of an education development fund known as FNDE and a government body responsible for fighting droughts in Brazil’s northeast region -- each of them with a budget worth billions of dollars. There are also discussions about posts at a regional bank and ports. In exchange, Bolsonaro asked for the approval of a list of about 20 projects -- and loyalty.

How much power do they actually have?

While centrist parties alone don’t ensure majority in congress, they also operate behind the scenes, building bridges with other groups. That makes them one of the biggest forces in congress, especially when it comes to setting a voting agenda.

Bolsonaro will need their help, for example, to uphold vetoes to wage hikes for public servants he has promised. On Thursday, Bolsonaro defended the vetoes in a meeting with governors, but congress may still overrule his decision.

Can they provide the political stability Bolsonaro needs?

Centrao can be a source of stability or instability, depending on whether the government honors agreements made with them. The parties usually demand more when the president gets weak, and may abandon him entirely if public opinion turns against the administration.

The alliance may also hurt Bolsonaro’s re-election chances in 2022 if voters see him repeating old political practices they disapprove of.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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