Brazil’s Bolsonaro faces centrist threat after local elections


When Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president two years ago, he promised to ditch the “old politics” of horse-trading and backroom deals that have long dominated governance in Latin America’s largest country.

Any hope such promises could be fulfilled were buried this week, however, with victory in local elections for a slew of centrist political parties, which are now poised to determine the success — or failure — of the remaining two years of the populist president’s term.

A former army captain, Mr Bolsonaro is currently enjoying record approval ratings after doling out cash relief to ease the coronavirus crisis in Brazil. But he is under pressure to deliver on much touted economic reforms, including a tax overhaul and a reform of the administrative state — both of which are deemed crucial to restoring the lustre of the country’s economy.

To do so, he will need the co-operation of Congress, including some factions that his cabinet has quarrelled with over the past few years.

Two groups in particular saw their hand strengthened by in Sunday’s polls — centrist parties, including DEM, MDB and the PSDB — claimed the mayorships of Brazil’s biggest cities. A bloc called the Centrão, which includes parties such as the PL and PP and is better known for trading support in exchange for plum political appointments, also did well.

“The centrists now have an opportunity to converge around an alternative candidacy to Bolsonaro in 2022 elections,” Sergio Vale, an analyst at MB Associados, said. “This puts pressure on the president to deliver more results and improve the economy to boost his popularity.

“And the Centrão came out fortified,” he added. “This puts the president in a bind as he will be more dependent on the bloc and they have no loyalty or ideological nuance.”

Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity has been boosted by cash payments during the coronavirus pandemic. But the Brazilian president acknowledged this week that they cannot continue indefinitely © Luis Alvarenga/Getty

Mr Bolsonaro struck an alliance with the Centrão earlier this year in order to stave off congressional moves towards his impeachment, but the bloc is notoriously fickle, and its allegiances are contingent upon rewards.

“President Jair Bolsonaro will have greater difficulty working with the congressional parties which come out strengthened from the elections,” said Mario Marconini, managing director at the consultancy Teneo, describing the elections as “Brazil’s flight towards the centre”.

Negotiating is exactly what the acerbic leader must now do. Any reforms must be negotiated and passed by Congress, which has sparred incessantly with almost all of Mr Bolsonaro’s cabinet over the past two years.

“He spent all his popularity and energy kicking us. And now he needs us to help him. We don’t need that,” said Fausto Pinato, a federal lawmaker with the PP, or Progressives, one of the five parties in the Centrão bloc.

Congress will also have a deciding say on the future of the coronavirus cash voucher, which between April and September put $120 each month in the hands of Brazil’s poorest citizens. Between September and the expiration of the funding package this month, the amount was reduced to $60.

The stipend is widely believed to be behind a spike in the president’s approval rating, which jumped to 40 per cent in September from 29 per cent at the end of last year, according to Ibope.

Mr Bolsonaro this week said the payments could not continue indefinitely, nodding to Brazil’s rapidly deteriorating fiscal position. But many suspect the populist leader will resort to some form of cash transfer programme, if his popularity begins to ebb ahead of 2022 polls.

“The country’s agenda will remain in the hands of Congress. The population can see the role of the congress with balance,” Mr Pinato said.

Celso Maldaner, a federal lawmaker with the MDB, or Brazilian Democratic Movement, which claimed 784 mayorships in the municipals polls, underlined that his party was a “protagonist of the reforms” needed to boost the economy.

“The Brazilian population expressed through the polls that they want balance. They do not want radicalism,” he said.

Most analysts, however, acknowledge that while the elections are likely to upend Brazil’s political dynamics over the next two years, they do not necessarily signal danger for the president’s re-election bid.

“I don’t see a clear loss for Bolsonarismo itself because local elections tend to play around very local and specific issues, so they don’t necessarily reflect national concerns and a nationwide left-right division,” said Aline Burni, a political researcher with the Centre for Legislative Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

“It doesn’t mean that those more ideological issues are no longer important for the electorate, it just means that their relevance was diminished in local elections.”

Silvio Cascione, the Brazil director of the Eurasia Group, said: “When 2022 comes, people will choose whether to re-elect Bolsonaro based on national politics and their desire for change. The best metric for that is the president’s popularity, which remains steady at a relatively good level for an incumbent.”

In addition to the cash handouts, Mr Bolsonaro remains popular for his image as a “political outsider”, analysts say. For his supporters, the president is a breath of fresh air — a straight-speaker unconcerned with issues such as political correctness.

He is also widely lauded for his pro-business attitude, particularly among agricultural communities in the country’s interior states, such as Mato Grosso and Goiás.

“His vision is our vision — it is one of entrepreneurship. He thinks like us and he wants to create jobs,” said Ilza Helena Gomes da Silva from an agricultural community in Mato Grosso. “Bolsonaro is an enlightened being.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice

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