Man Behind Key Brazil Reform Is Flirting With Presidential Bid

(Bloomberg) -- In an age of populism and flamboyance, Rodrigo Maia doesn’t exactly look the part of a rising political figure. Round-faced and soft-spoken, the speaker of the lower house of Brazil’s congress comes off as a touch uncomfortable in his own skin, fiddling repeatedly with his tie, his jacket, his wedding band and his thinning hair during an hours-long interview.

Yet Maia is having something of a moment following the historic passage of a social security reform bill that he’s widely credited with making happen. Flown to New York to receive the Wilson Center’s Award for Public Service, he also got a hero’s welcome from Wall Street financiers who now see him as crucial to Brazil’s economic stability.

And Maia, 49, is unafraid to reveal the full scale of his ambitions: Not only does he plan to use his centrist coalition to push through several other key reforms over the next year, but he talks openly about how he’s flirting with an eventual presidential run.

He acknowledges that such talk is a bit premature -- the next election after all is still three years away and he’s far from making a decision on whether to run -- but he points out with some satisfaction that one local poll recently showed that 25% of Brazilians rate his performance as “good” or better. While that’s not exactly an overwhelming show of support, it does represent, according to Maia, a big jump from the numbers he pulled in a few years ago. (The president of the Senate, for some context, tracks at just 9%.)

“If you ask me if I would like to be a candidate to Brazil’s presidency, of course I would,” Maia said. If he fails to mount a viable candidacy in 2022 -- something he readily admits is possible, even likely -- he expects to be able to at least galvanize enough support among moderate politicians to influence the shape of the race. “I have been able to build a space in the center that is mine.”

‘A Third Way’

Maia’s belief in his own possible candidacy is based in part on his belief that the rise of radical politicians across the globe, which helped carry the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro into the Brazilian presidency last year, will eventually fade away, as people see the economic cost of constant political conflict. A potential escalation of attacks between Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a popular leftist leader who delivered a speech that Maia called “too radical” upon his release from prison earlier this month, may hasten this process, setting the stage for a centrist candidate.

“If radicalism prevails on both sides, people will look for a third way,” Maia said, borrowing a line from former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Should Maia somehow manage to find a viable path to the Brazilian presidency, it’d likely look like that of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a man who, like the speaker, was a bit of an unnatural, almost stiff, politician who went on to earn the moniker of great economic reformer.

In Cardoso’s case, the achievements were monumental. He masterminded the plan that crushed hyperinflation in the mid-1990s and ushered in a period of economic stability that has largely lasted until today.

Maia knows that his victories are, for now at least, more modest. The social security reform, his landmark success so far, will save the cash-strapped government some $190 billion over the next decade and help prevent the budget deficit from swelling out of control. While the bill was proposed by the Bolsonaro administration, it is Maia who is widely credited for its passage because he found a way to stitch together a consensus in the fractured lower house.

Born in Santiago, Chile, where his father was in exile during Brazil’s military dictatorship, Maia attended college in Rio de Janeiro but left before graduating. After a brief career in banking, he followed his father into politics and is in his sixth term representing the state of Rio.

‘Big Center’

First elected as speaker in 2016 after the polarizing impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded Lula, Maia proved adept at handling the house’s warring factions. Those include some who loathe Bolsonaro and support Lula and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party; others who support Bolsonaro and loathe the Workers’ Party; and, the amorphous “big center,” a group of ideologically flexible parties that gravitates toward money or power.

Next up on Maia’s agenda are a series of reforms aimed at further stabilizing the government’s finances and jump-starting a sluggish economy. Those include tackling the country’s notoriously complicated tax code, which Maia sees as having more potential to boost growth than the pension reform, as well as a set of bills aimed at capping public spending and a change in sanitation laws aimed at attracting investment in infrastructure projects.

Maia is unabashedly optimistic that he can get all of them approved by July 2020. Unrealistic? History would certainly suggest so. Revamping the tax code, for instance, has been an issue for decades and represents a stiff challenge. But Maia likes to point to more recent history -- the passage of social security reform -- as evidence of what is possible.

“Everybody said we wouldn’t get the pension reform approved, especially one as sizable and with so many votes,” Maia said. “I have to be optimistic about the remaining reforms.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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