Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Man with Bolsonaro’s Fate in His Hands

Rather than initiate impeachment, House Speaker Arthur Lira is busy advancing his own agenda.
Brazil's increasingly powerful House Speaker Arthur LiraAndressa Anholete/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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BRASÍLIA – As President Jair Bolsonaro’s self-made institutional crisis rattled Brazilian politics in recent weeks and months, another man has taken advantage of the chaos to advance his own agenda – and consolidate power.

Arthur Lira, the speaker of Brazil’s House of Representatives, holds all the cards in the form of hundreds of requests for the president’s impeachment that he alone can bring to light. But rather than wade into Bolsonaro’s showdown with the Supreme Court, Lira is quietly working to steer the House in a direction that serves his own purposes. In fact, after the president’s rally on Sep. 7, Lira gave his own speech adamantly supporting democracy – neither naming the president nor raising the issue of impeachment.

An astute politician who can foresee scenarios and perceive his opponents’ weaknesses, Lira has already become one of the most powerful speakers in recent years. Elected with Bolsonaro’s support, some predicted he would serve as the president’s puppet. Instead, he has managed to pull the strings of a very delicate political game, thriving in an atmosphere of intense polarization.

A center-right congressman for a decade, Lira was elected speaker in February on a promise to give space and voice to all political forces in the House. Instead, critics say he has begun to act like those he once criticized, moving to strengthen the power of traditional party leaders like himself. For example, Lira has overseen recent changes to the House’s internal rules that have concentrated a great deal of power in his hands. He has also made it harder to postpone votes or delay debate due to lack of consensus, depriving minority lawmakers of an opportunity to leverage their bargain power.

Even if the moves haven’t granted Lira total control over the other 512 representatives, they have given him a prerogative never before enjoyed by a speaker in the House of Representatives. His expanded power explains the record number of complaints by party leaders about the excessive concentration of important decisions in the hands of the House speaker.

Over time, the changes Lira is pursuing may prevent innovation and renewal within Brazilian politics. He has, for instance, promoted changes to current electoral rules that have allowed the creation of new parties and political renewal movements in recent years. These movements are the anathema of Lira, a member of a traditional political clan who likely perceives any structural expansion of political representation as a threat.

Two other changes promoted by Lira are perhaps even more transformative. He was able to fast track a vote on an electoral reform that would allow the reinstatement of proportional coalitions – a nod to political forces who are likewise threatened by changes in Brazilian political representation. A new electoral code, meanwhile, is pending approval by the House of Representatives and would be another movement in the direction of a less accountable democracy. The new code threatens to make the electoral system less free and fair by reducing transparency in the use of financial resources and decriminalizing campaign tactics such as the transportation of voters by candidates. Both could benefit established parties, such as Lira’s own Progressistas Party.

Speaker of the House Arthur Lira receiving the electoral reform proposal from fellow representatives in June. (Pablo Valadares/Câmara dos Deputados)

Lira is also trying to soften rules that have brought greater transparency and external control to political participation. This is especially relevant for the parties of the so-called Centrão coalition, which might welcome back to public life individuals who have been kept out of politics because of legal convictions.

So while Bolsonaro and his attacks on institutions have created plenty of diversions, Lira is benefiting from them more than the president. The speaker has taken advantage of the prevailing confusion to make the rules of the electoral game more dependent on traditional party leadership while granting lawmakers greater influence on the allocation of public funds and increasing the capacity of rent-seeking parties to be important players in national decision-making processes. It is emblematic that such an agenda has found support among lawmakers from across the political spectrum.

In normal times, such movements and operations by a speaker would be subject to intense public scrutiny. However, in the face of the executive’s wear and tear on Brazilian institutions, Lira’s moves have been missed by civil society’s radar, today absorbed by conscious and unconscious fears about the future of the country’s democracy.

Lira, therefore, acts as a kind of Trojan horse for the political, partisan and institutional forces that have controlled the course of the Brazilian political game since the country’s democratization in the mid-1980s. His is a regressive agenda preventing positive electoral innovations, and, above all, a real renewal of the profile of the average Brazilian politician. Far from reforms that might strengthen democracy, the changes that have been proposed under Lira so far may lead to an even sharper decline in the quality of political representation in Brazil and to the erosion of Brazilian democracy at a critical juncture, when strong democratic oversight is more urgent than ever.

De Souza is CEO and founder of Dharma Political Risk and Strategy, a Brasília-based consultancy, and a guest lecturer at Fundação Dom Cabral. He is a member of the Brazil Foundation Consulting Board and a former two-time U.S. State Department fellow.

Tags: Arthur Lira, Bolsonaro, Brazilian politics
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