- President Jair Bolsonaro continues to attack democratic institutions and the electronic voting system.
- Institutions react against the president but the threat to his political survival is still minimal.
- Congress will attempt to advance economic agenda but without expending much political capital.
Just when the Defense Minister, Army General Braga Netto, echoed President Jair Bolsonaro's threats that there would be no elections unless paper ballots replaced the existing, and widely acclaimed, electronic voting system, the president deepened his alliance with Congress. He did so by appointing a prominent leader of the Big Center, Senator Ciro Nogueira, as his Chief-of-Staff. The natural corollary to the president's move was protection from prosecution or impeachment and improved executive-congressional relations. However, the president has since intensified his aggressive stance against democratic institutions.
Just a piece of paper
The paper ballot issue, for example, has escalated to a frontal conflict involving the president and Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso, who currently sits as president of the electoral court (TSE) as well. Barroso pushed the court to launch an administrative inquiry into the president's attacks against electronic voting and the legitimacy of the 2022 elections. In addition, the Supreme Court (STF) approved a request from the TSE to include the president in an existing inquiry into fake news and threats to the court. The administrative inquiry alone could, in principle, result in the ineligibility of the president to compete in 2022.
The TSE has teeth…
This state of affairs would seem to reveal a significant aggravation of the president's situation – particularly in relation to the possibility of being ousted and losing his political rights. The TSE after all can and has taken a decision unilaterally without submitting it to the Prosecutor's Office, which thus prevents head prosecutor Augusto Aras, an ally of the president, from blocking the case. It would suffice for the TSE to rule against the president following the inquiry to make him ineligible. There would be no need for Congress to reach a two-thirds majority in two votes in each of its chambers either. It would seem that a ruse was found to checkmate the president.
… but will not use them
The TSE may have the power to oust the president, but it is unlikely it will have the courage to do so if the president continues to maintain the support of one third of the electorate. The question is whether the Senate inquiry into the pandemic (CPI) could erode his popularity further, to the levels of former president Dilma Rousseff (7%) at the time of her impeachment. That also seems unlikely, especially as the economy picks up and he finds a way to launch a new and improved cash transfer program to the most vulnerable.
The president's situation does not get worse when he goes against democracy, electronic voting, the STF or even Congress – no matter how paradoxical that may look. In fact, by doubling down on his feisty anti-establishment style, Bolsonaro diverts attention from the CPI, buys time, and may even improve his popularity. There are more people supporting a change to paper ballots now than has ever been the case since it was implemented in 1996 (46% according to the polls). In a way, the president has nothing more effective to defend himself against the institutional onslaught from the TSE and the STF than to stir up noise and rally supporters with false claims.
As to Congress, both speaker Arthur Lira and Senate chairman Rodrigo Pacheco do not mind Bolsonaro's histrionics as long as they can manage to look busy and productive for their own political and electoral reasons. The privatization of the postal office just cleared the House, and the Senate is attempting to kickstart the tax reform proposal for a constitutional amendment that has been sitting there for over two years – the PEC110. It is unlikely it will move but Pacheco needs an agenda besides the CPI. He may need to look elsewhere but fighting the president will certainly not qualify as an option unless a radical change of events forces him to do so.