Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is under siege
THERE many ways to describe the politics of pork barrels in Brazil. They include tomá lá dá cá (give and take), trochus of favores (exchange of favors), corporativism (corporatism) and velha política (old policy). In 2018, during the election campaign, Jair Bolsonaro used these much cruder insults to denigrate his political colleagues, especially those of the Left Workers Party (PT), who ruled from 2003 to 2016 and was troubled by two major corruption scandals. As chairman, he promised to move his agenda forward without handing out cargoes (jobs) or emendas (amendments: i.e. pork).
The first sign that he had given up on this “new policy” came in mid-2020, when he formed an alliance with a bloc of interested parties known as the centrão (large center) in order to protect themselves from impeachment petitions, of which there are currently 117. Centrão support is never free. A recent survey of Estado de S. Paulo, a newspaper, showed that last year, the government of Mr. Bolsonaro disbursed more than 20 billion reais (3.9 billion dollars) thanks to emendas do relator, or “president’s pig”, a reference to the chair of the budget committee. At least 3 billion reais have been funneled by the Development Ministry to members of Congress to finance public works and purchase agricultural equipment at inflated prices, sometimes through businesses owned by relatives.
The scandal, which the press dubbed tratoraço (roughly, “tractor-door”), is the clearest evidence to date of Mr. Bolsonaro’s involvement in the pork barrel policy. It unfolds alongside an even bigger public relations disaster: a parliamentary commission of inquiry ( CPI) in the government’s management of the pandemic. Both crises show just how weaker Mr Bolsonaro has become and how Congress, known for its viral opportunism, has used its vulnerability to strengthen itself. “The more fragile the president, the higher the cost of support,” explains Sylvio Costa of Congresso em Foco, a surveillance site.
The Brazilian political system, known as “coalition presidentialism”, is a hybrid between the presidential model of the United States and the parliamentary government of the European type. The president leads policy making and writes the budget, but there’s not much he can do without Congress, where his party rarely has a majority. Most of the 30 or so Brazilian political parties lack ideological platforms; they support presidents in exchange for favoritism. This favors voted projects like paving roads or painting schools, rather than long-term planning, explains Élida Pinto, professor of public finance at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), a university.
In 1994, six members of Congress lost their posts following a vote-buying scandal involving bogus NGOs. In 2005, a centrão the legislator has admitted that the PT forwarded 30,000 reais per month to members of Congress in exchange for legislative support. (He was kicked out of Congress but is now an ally of Mr. Bolsonaro.) In 2014, prosecutors launched an investigation called Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) which revealed a large program of bribes among construction companies, political parties and the state oil company.
In response to the protests, Congress passed a series of constitutional amendments aimed at reducing corruption while keeping members of Congress nice. Most emendas has in effect become an automatic allowance (not at the discretion of the President) for lawmakers to spend in their constituencies. They had to follow new rules, such as providing receipts. But such restrictions have made it more difficult for presidents to create a coalition. When Dilma Rousseff, a PT president, was removed in 2016, it was technically because she had hidden the size of Brazil’s budget deficit; but also because it has had difficulty managing an increasingly undisciplined Congress. She expanded her cabinet to 39 departments to distribute patronage, but a recession in 2014-16 limited her reach.
Mr. Bolsonaro saw something similar. Brazil has experienced one of the world’s worst covid-19 epidemics, with an official tally of over 450,000 dead. Its pandemic minimization strategy appeared to work last year, when a third of Brazilians received emergency aid. But this year, a second wave coincided with rising inflation, slow vaccination and reduced donations. Mr Bolsonaro’s approval rating has dropped from 40% to less than 30%. The president of the lower house, Arthur Lira, the only person who can open impeachment proceedings, warned of “bitter political remedies”.
But impeachment is unlikely, in part because Mr Bolsonaro actually reinvented the president’s pig at the end of 2019. Most of the new allocations went to lawmakers who voted for Mr Lira and the centrão’s choice for Senate head Rodrigo Pacheco in the leadership elections in February. Documents on government websites represent only about 1 billion reais of the 3 billion reais spent by the development ministry. The president of the budget, Domingos Neto, sent 110 million reais to a town of 59,000 inhabitants of which his mother is the mayor. The ministry agreed to pay 500,000 reais each for the tractors which cost 200,000. He insisted that there were no irregularities.
A bigger threat to Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity is the CPI, which began hearing testimony in the Senate this month. Its daily sessions are broadcast live on TV, creating a macabre oral history of Brazil’s pandemic disaster. Two former health ministers said the government’s initial strategy was based on herd immunity and hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug promoted by Donald Trump. A Pfizer executive said the government ignored six offers to sell vaccines in Brazil. Then-health minister Eduardo Pazuello, a general who was also in charge when the city of Manaus ran out of oxygen, tried not to testify saying he may have the covid- 19 himself.
Mr. Bolsonaro “becomes a prisoner of his unpopularity”, says Alessandro Molon, the leader of the opposition in the lower house. The latest polls show that support for the president is falling in almost all constituencies, including among his most staunch supporters, such as evangelical Christians. His main rival in the 2022 elections will likely be Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former PT president whose popularity has recently increased. A poll suggests that if a run-off election were to take place tomorrow, 55% would choose it compared to just 32% for Mr Bolsonaro (the others said neither). When Brazilians see Europeans and Americans getting vaccinated, they realize that “our president is a caricature,” says Ciro Gomes, a former governor who is also planning to run.
Mr Bolsonaro could recover before the elections next year. Vaccination is finally progressing and the economy is doing better than expected. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes urged Congress to reform taxes and the public sector. This would free up money for programs that win votes, he argues. But lawmakers also want handouts. “The centrão is not faithful ”, warns Rebeca Lucena of BMJ, a consulting firm. “If the ship sinks, it will jump into another.” ■
This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Lose Weight”