Brazil's Bolsonaro Wins Friends in Congressional Bear Pit

(Bloomberg) -- Just 24 hours after coming within a whisker of a first round victory, former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro found himself with a lot of new friends.

Not only did his party, the PSL, see its ranks swell from 8 to 52 in the lower house, but the seven-term congressman also sparked the interest of Brazil’s centrist parties, which tend to coalesce around winners whatever their ideology. The PRB, for example, will back Bolsonaro if he becomes president, one of its leaders told Bloomberg, while the DEM and the PR, two other large parties, are leaning towards endorsing the ex-Army captain.

Brazil's Bolsonaro Wins Friends in Congressional Bear Pit

Brazil’s Congress is notoriously fractious and Bolsonaro’s capacity to govern in the event of victory had been repeatedly called into question. But as Sunday’s results have shaken up the legislature dramatically, if the far-right politician becomes the next president, he’ll end up working with a legislature far more sympathetic to his ideals than most pollsters imagined. Given some of the painful, popularity-sapping economic measures he’ll have to take once in office, he’ll need all the congressional support he can muster.

“What comes out from this election is a Congress more favorable to pass Bolsonaro’s reforms,” said Juliano Griebeler, political analyst at Barral M Jorge, a business consultancy. “That said, questions remain over his ability to govern and navigate the big parties because he lacks someone in his entourage with the experience.”

At a meeting of the PSDB in its Brasilia headquarters on Tuesday evening, Joao Doria, the party’s candidate for governor of Sao Paulo, reiterated his support for Bolsonaro -- as did another influential gubernatorial contender -- although the party itself will not officially endorse Bolsonaro, nor his leftwing rival, Fernando Haddad. The party’s presidential candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, who came in fourth, said that he would not take a position.

Earlier, the third-largest party in the lower house, the PP, issued a note earlier declaring itself officially neutral, but that does not stop individual members from picking sides. Meanwhile, the center-left PDT party of third-placed presidential contender Ciro Gomes, offered lukewarm support for Haddad.

The Workers’ Party candidate lost seats in both houses of congress, though it remains the largest party in the lower house. The new composition of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies suggests that it may prove challenging for the leftwinger to form a working majority in the event of victory.

Brazil's Bolsonaro Wins Friends in Congressional Bear Pit

Bear Pit

By any international standards Brazil’s Congress is fragmented, unruly and brutal, with dozens of parties vying for pork and patronage. Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was almost brought down by a vote-buying scandal, while the decision by his successor, Dilma Rousseff, to snub the legislature much of the time contributed to her impeachment.

Even the current president, Michel Temer, with over twenty years of experience in Congress, struggled to bring its many competing factions to heel in the final year of his administration. After some initial success passing austerity measures, his efforts to pass a much needed reform of Brazil’s pension system hit a wall in the lower house earlier this year.

Traditionally, most of Brazil’s centrist parties rally behind the president, at least at the beginning of his or her mandate. But in a break with the past, Bolsonaro appears less interested in courting their support than in reaching out to cross-party caucuses, like the so-called "Bullets, Beef and Bible" bloc, comprising lawmakers representing law-and-order hardliners, farmers and evangelicals.

"Bolsonaro doesn’t want party support," said Lincoln Portela, the vice-leader of the PR. "He already has around 300 legislators that support him in the new Congress."

Still, Bolsonaro’s backing from the public derives mainly from his values-based campaign centered around "God, the family and justice" -- as the candidate himself described it on Sunday -- rather than economics, about which he admits he knows nothing. With little history of compromise, or legislative success, the former paratrooper may still struggle to bend the legislature to his will.

Brazil's Bolsonaro Wins Friends in Congressional Bear Pit