Brazil: Conservative Bolsonaro Allies Retake Congress

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro gives his thumb up during the signing of a declaration to kick off the Prosur regional initiative at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, on March 22, 2019. - The presidents of Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay launched a new regional block that …
CLAUDIO REYES/AFP/Getty Images

Allies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took the top leadership positions in the Brazilian Congress on Monday, cementing his influence on the legislative branch and boxing out left-wing factions that attempted to generate interest in impeaching him.

As of Tuesday, the new President of the Chamber of Deputies — the equivalent of the U.S. Speaker of the House position, is conservative lawmaker Arthur Lira; Sen. Rodrigo Pacheco is now president of the Senate, the analog in the upper chamber of Congress. Bolsonaro endorsed both to take those positions and consolidated enough support among the many political parties active in Congress to prevent their main rivals from seizing them.
Lira’s victory is a particularly painful defeat for his predecessor, the center-left lawmaker Rodrigo Maia, who had suggested impeaching Bolsonaro and had endorsed Lira’s main rival, Baleia Rossi.

Maia claimed Brazil’s relatively slow start in distributing vaccines against the Chinese coronavirus, in part the result of Bolsonaro’s refusal to import doses of “CoronaVac,” a vaccine candidate from China, could lead to impeachment.

After months of tension between Bolsonaro and his own health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, and other regional politicians, Bolsonaro caved and allowed Brasilia to begin importing CoronaVac, despite its dismal success rate.

“The main error of the entire government of President Jair Bolsonaro is the issue of the vaccine,” Maia said shortly before his term ended. “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 had also called Bolsonaro a “coward” for his public tensions with Pazuello, appearing to blame him for delays in vaccine distribution.

Maia left his position as president of the Chamber of Deputies in tears Monday.

“The fights will pass,” Maia said, referring to tensions with Lira, before his departure, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported. “We have a moment of more friction in my case, with the candidacy of Rep. Arthur Lira. To him and those who support him, if at any time you felt offended by what I said, that was not my intention.”

Maia insisted he had “prepared to not cry,” but failed to live up to that preparation.

Bolsonaro congratulated the winners of the congressional elections Monday, stating that the Congress had “chosen good candidates.” He rejected any credit for helping them with his endorsement, stating, “I was just one of the crowd” watching the vote.

Brazil’s government is a complex multi-party system in which the Chamber of Deputies boasts 24 political parties and the Senate 16, as of the 2018 elections, which means the election of new leaders must be followed by the parties negotiating to share power. The major left-wing and right-wing parties had agreed to form two factions, behind Lira and Rossi, prior to the vote, and agree on other leadership roles in the legislature. Lira shocked his peers Tuesday by annulling the agreement, stating one of the parties in the minority coalition, the Marxist Workers’ Party (PT), had registered to become part of that coalition past the deadline and was thus ineligible.

The PT ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2016, when Congress impeached President Dilma Rousseff and removed her from office. The PT was responsible for extreme policy changes during its rule, including a shift to a more hostile stance towards the United States and working agreements with rogue states like China, Cuba, and Venezuela. Left-wing lawmakers and other political figures accused Lira of attempting to deprive the PT of influence unfairly.

Lira has publicly also rejected calls from political figures like Maia to seek Bolsonaro’s impeachment, noting his high popularity at the moment and what appears to be no public desire to see an impeachment trial. Instead, Lira has stated that he would prioritize economic relief for those affected by the Chinese coronavirus pandemic and limiting wasteful government spending, which peaked during the PT years – in part thanks to Brazil hosting both a Summer Olympics session and the FIFA World Cup.

Brazil has one of the highest rates of coronavirus infection in the world, excluding questionable numbers documented by the governments of rogue states like China and Iran. As of Tuesday, the Brazilian government has confirmed 9.2 million cases of Chinese coronavirus cumulatively and 225,099 deaths. The high infection rate has not deterred Bolsonaro from publicly opposing the use of government lockdowns to fight the virus, arguing they cause severe economic harm that compounds the effects of the health crisis. As Brazil is a federal government system, Bolsonaro does not have the constitutional power to stop regional governments from imposing lockdowns, however, so many in the country have faced significant economic hardship since the pandemic began.

Bolsonaro has also encouraged Brazilians not to fear the pandemic, referring to coronavirus as a “little cold” and lamenting that concerns about the virus had turned Brazil into a “nation of sissies.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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