Brazil: Bolsonaro Ally Poised to Win Leadership of Congress

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro points to the press as he refers to his recovery from COVID-19 and his past as an athlete, during a ceremony coined "Brazil winning COVID-19" at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

President Jair Bolsonaro’s choice for the presidency of the lower house of Congress of Brazil, lawmaker Arthur Lira, is expected to take over the role next month, multiple reports suggested this week.

Reuters cited the risk consultancy Arko finding that a vast majority of Brazilian lawmakers support Lira’s bid over main opponent, Congressman Baleia Rossi, endorsed by current President of the Congress Rodrigo Maia. Maia is an ardent opponent of Bolsonaro who has referred to the president as a “coward” and floated the possibility of impeaching him for Brazil’s slow rollout of Chinese coronavirus vaccine candidates, triggered in part by the insistence of left-wing politicians on securing a deal to purchase “CoronaVac,” a Chinese coronavirus vaccine candidate found to be only 50 percent effective.

The presidency of the Brazilian Congress is the equivalent of the American Speaker of the House of Representatives, tasked with leading the lower chamber and given the power to set much of the nation’s legislative agenda.

A win for Bolsonaro in Congress would follow months of positive polling for the conservative president, despite a campaign by the Brazilian and international left against his positions regarding Chinese coronavirus protocol. Bolsonaro has openly opposed economic lockdowns to contain the virus — though, as president, he cannot stop state governors from imposing them — and has urged Brazilians to consider the coronavirus a “little cold.” Bolsonaro was diagnosed with Chinese coronavirus in July and credited his swift recovery to hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial banned for use against Chinese coronavirus in the United States as it is “unlikely to be effective.” Bolsonaro was photographed holding up a bottle of the drug to a rhea, a flightless bird common in Brazil, during his time in recovery.

Despite the eventful course of Bolsonaro’s handling of the virus, his popular approval ratings remain strong. The Brazilian polling firm Datafolha found Bolsonaro’s approval rating at 37 percent, a record high, in December.

“Lira, who cast himself as fiscally conservative in a written exchange with Reuters, has more than the 257-vote majority needed, according to risk consultancy Arko,” Reuters reported Monday, describing Rossi’s challenge as an “uphill battle.” Reuters also noted that Bolsonaro appears to have an edge in the Senate presidency race, as his preferred candidate there, Rodrigo Pacheco, has a “clear lead.”

Pacheco is a member of the Democrats Party, along with Bolsonaro opponent Maia. The party is centrist; Bolsonaro himself does not belong to any political party, highlighting the disjointed nature of the Brazilian party system. Rossi, Maia’s preferred Deputies candidate, is not a member Maia’s party. Brazil has 33 political parties, 24 of which are represented in the Chamber of Deputies, the equivalent of the House of Representatives. Many of these parties are “centrist” or without clear ideological leanings.

Brazilian media reported this week that, similar to the Reuters analysis, Lira appeared poised to be the next president of the Chamber of Deputies. The Brazilian newspaper Estadao described the race as far closer than Reuters, however, estimating, citing interviews with lawmakers, that 186 representatives would vote for Lira as their leader, while 114 would vote for Rossi. The rest are reportedly undecided. Lira reportedly gained 41 prospective votes since January 15, the last time Estadao consulted lawmakers.

Globo’s G1, another Brazilian outlet, assessed the race in Rossi’s favor on Monday, estimating that 272 lawmakers would vote for him so far, while only 196 had committed to Lira. G1 suggested that the lead is in part because Rossi has received the support of 12 other political parties, including the Workers’ Party (PT), the radical socialist party that ruled Brazil for nearly a decade before the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

Bolsonaro’s support of Lira has translated into some public calls for electing him to the leadership of the Chamber of Deputies, despite the fact that the popular vote does not determine that position. Last week, Bolsonaro supporters began organizing caravans in support of Liran. One of the organizers, Evangelical Pastor Marlan Gustavo, told Folha de Sao Paulo that Bolsonaro supporters were expecting to put together caravans for Lira in 25 cities that would then drive into Brasilia, the national capital. Gustavo described the caravans as “peaceful and super-patriotic.”

A Lira win would significantly diminish the prospect of impeachment for Bolsonaro, which Maia raised but promised he would not pursue, as his term ends after the February 2 leadership vote.

“The main error of the entire government of President Jair Bolsonaro is the issue of the vaccine,” Maia said last week. “I find that, on the vaccine issue, if he doesn’t get organized fast — perhaps he will suffer a very difficult impeachment process if he doesn’t get organized fast.”

Maia admitted no popular support for impeachment appears to exist.

Lira has stated that his agenda would not include attempting to impeach Bolsonaro and lamented in remarks this week the “politicization” of the coronavirus vaccine rollout.

The Brazilian Instituto Butantan was collaborating with Sinovac, a Chinese pharmaceutical company, to develop “CoronaVac,” considered one of the least effective coronavirus vaccine candidates currently in widespread circulation. Bolsonaro has publicly opposed the use of Chinese vaccine candidates and opposed calls to force all Brazilians to take a vaccine, describing such a move as turning Brazilians into “guinea pigs.” The Brazilian government nonetheless approved “CoronaVac” this week, alongside offering an approval for a vaccine developed in the U.K. by the company AstraZeneca.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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