Brazil Congress elects new leaders in test for Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro, who currently has no political party, has struggled to get legislation passed in Congress, and is increasingly unpopular amid a raging second wave of COVID-19 in Brazil.

FILE: In this file photo taken on 7 November 2018 Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro gestures as he delivers a joint press conference with Michel Temer after a meeting in Brasilia. Picture: AFP

BRASILIA – Brazil's Congress on Monday elected Rodrigo Pacheco as Senate speaker, an ally of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, whose political future could hang in the balance ahead of the lower house's vote.

Pacheco, of the Democrats (DEM) party, won by 57 votes. The 44-year-old achieved the feat of receiving backing from Bolsonaro, as well as the Workers Party (PT), and former leftist presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016).

Bolsonaro got personally involved in the leadership battles in both houses of the legislature, looking to improve his troubled relations with Congress and stave off the 61 impeachment requests he is facing.

The speakers of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, who are elected for two-year terms by their colleagues, are key gate-keepers in Brazilian politics, with the power to decide which legislation comes up for a vote.

The lower-house speaker also has the power to accept or shelve motions to impeach the president -- no small matter for the leader dubbed the "Tropical Trump," who has racked up dozens of such requests halfway into his four-year term.

Bolsonaro, who currently has no political party, has struggled to get legislation passed in Congress, and is increasingly unpopular amid a raging second wave of COVID-19 in Brazil.

He won election in 2018 with support from the business sector vowing to push through a long-delayed program of privatizations and austerity reforms.

But he has made virtually no progress on that agenda. Instead, the economy has taken a beating from the pandemic, which Bolsonaro has insistently downplayed.

Seeking to use the leadership votes to bolster his clout with Congress, Bolsonaro struck an alliance with a coalition known as the "Centrao," or "big center," a loose coalition of parties whose priority has traditionally been gaining access to pork and government posts.

In the Senate, he got a bit of good news soon after the voting began when lawmakers elected Pacheco, his candidate for speaker.

But the real test will be in the lower house, where there has been a hard-fought battle pitting Bolsonaro's candidate, Arthur Lira of the Progressives (PP), against seven other candidates.

The main challenge to Lira comes from Baleia Rossi of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), the candidate backed by current lower-house speaker Rodrigo Maia (DEM).

Maia has a strained relationship with Bolsonaro, and reacted furiously when other lawmakers from his party defied him to back Lira.

He reportedly threatened to use his last day in the speaker's seat to open impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro, before backtracking.

Bolsonaro faces some 20 impeachment motions over his chaotic handling of the pandemic, plus dozens more over alleged anti-democratic actions, environmental crimes and hate speech.

The voting process in the lower house could stretch into the early hours of Tuesday.

Even if Bolsonaro gets his candidate elected, he could still struggle to get things done in Brasilia before he comes up for reelection next year.

The "Centrao" is a demanding and fickle ally, whose betrayal played a key role in the impeachment and downfall of former president Rousseff in 2016, political analysts warn.

"The 'Centrao' is loyal when conditions are right. And currently, that's far from a given, with an extremely fragile economy and Bolsonaro's popularity falling," said political scientist Thiago Vidal of the consulting firm Prospectiva.

"They're going to hold his government hostage."

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