Bolsonaro Wins a Senate Ally With Brazil's Reforms on the Line

(Bloomberg) -- Brazilian senators chose a pro-government lawmaker as their chief, potentially boosting President Jair Bolsonaro’s reform agenda while leaving the administration’s strength in the upper house in question.

Davi Alcolumbre, 41, a little-known legislator from the pro-business DEM party, won by one vote on Saturday after a tumultuous debate that lasted more than 24 hours and saw front-runner Renan Calheiros of the MDB party, the Senate’s biggest, drop out. In the lower house, DEM’s Rodrigo Maia won a third consecutive term as speaker on Friday.

Bolsonaro congratulated Alcolumbre, saying his challenge is to act on Brazilian voters’ desire for change.

While Alcolumbre has declared his support for Bolsonaro’s economic agenda, his acrimonious victory and lack of leadership experience raise questions about his ability to push the reform bills, including a much-awaited pension overhaul, in practice. There are also questions as to what extent pro-Calheiros legislators will remain loyal to the government.

“It’s easier for the government to negotiate with Davi than with Renan,” said Juliano Griebeler, a Brasilia-based analyst with BMJ consultancy. “But the election of Davi certainly means opposition from Renan, who until now was open to dialog with the government.”

The two legislative speakers wield influence, including the power to decide which bills get to a vote and when.

Read more: Hospitalized Bolsonaro Improves After Minor Relapse, Son Says

Maia, a trained economist who worked briefly in banking before turning to politics, has said he’s capable of approving contentious reforms including the pension overhaul. While the lower-house speaker wasn’t officially backed by Bolsonaro, he was endorsed by the president’s PSL party and others.

With his PSL party holding four of 81 Senate seats, Bolsonaro’s immediate challenge is to forge a working majority in a Congress with some two dozen parties. While several parties have pledged to support the government, Bolsonaro has no formal coalition to count on.

Maia said on Friday the government may not attain any time soon a majority to approve pension reform, which investors view as essential to narrowing the budget deficit. There’s a 30 percent chance the proposal won’t be approved, according to Eurasia Group.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.