In need of reform
Tabata amaral wanted to be an astrophysicist, not a politician. She was raised in the outskirts of São Paulo and graduated from Harvard in 2016. On her return she saw the sorry state of education in Brazil and decided only policy change would improve it. So she launched a bid for Congress and became a federal deputy at 24. On her first day in Brasília in 2019, she learned why change is so hard. The son of another congressman was squatting in her state apartment and refused to leave. Politicians get lots of perks: a salary of 405,000 reais, 25 advisers of their choice, free housing,and foro privilegiado, which makes them hard to punish. Parties are given 2bn reais between them to run campaigns. State-sized districts require big spending, so rich political clans usually win. In exchange for their support, the president doles out jobs and pork.
Some young politicians want change. After Lava Jato Ms Amaral founded Acredito (I believe), a movement that preaches “renewal of people, practices and principles”. She also joined Renova br, a public-policy bootcamp founded by Eduardo Mufarej, a businessman, that trained 117 candidates before the 2018 election, of whom 17 were elected. Members of Renova br represent parties across the ideological spectrum and don’t always obey party instructions. Ms Amaral was nearly kicked out of the centre-left Democratic Labour Party for voting for pension reform.
“Every politician has to choose whether to work for the inside or the outside,” she says. Ms Amaral and two other congressmen cut costs by sharing staff. Their “shared cabinet” was the first to propose a basic income for the poor during the pandemic. Veteran politicians now use social media. “It was as if the public didn’t exist and now it does,” says Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president. The internet may spur more change than the modest reforms agreed on so far, such as a “clean record” law barring candidates with graft convictions for eight years and a “performance clause” denying funds to parties with less than 3% of the vote.
Deeper reforms might include smaller districts, stricter campaign-financing rules and admitting independent candidates. But none looks likely. Although voters in 2018 elected a record number of first-timers, most were “new politicians with old ideas,” says Joênia Wapixana, the first indigenous congresswoman. Politicians back the system that put them in power. That was clear when they refused to give up pork in the budget even though it meant cuts to health and education. Deputies may even support a bill to increase their terms from four to five years and to bring back corporate campaign donations.
Mr Bolsonaro’s vows of renewal have also proved false. “In 2018 it was a decision between something we knew had brought the country to its knees and something we didn’t know,” says Mr Mufarej. That was a “collective mistake”. Disillusion increased when the president squandered chances to buy vaccines. A Pfizer executive told the cpi that Mr Bolsonaro ignored six offers from the company. His approval rating fell from over 40% in August to less than 30%. But Congress has ignored 111 impeachment petitions against Mr Bolsonaro. Before Ms Rousseff was impeached, she faced months of protests and her support slumped to 9%.
The cpi will give Mr Bolsonaro’s opponents ammunition for the election next year. The battle will be fought by traditional politicians. His top rival is Lula, who wants to remind Brazilians how good things were when he was president. “Poor people travelled in aeroplanes and were proud to eat meat on Sundays,” he tells The Economist. “Now they are going hungry.” Yet Lula’s negative ratings are nearly as high as Mr Bolsonaro’s. Many Brazilians have not forgiven him for the pt’s role in corruption. He suggests that prosecutors in the United States collaborated with Lava Jato because of “an interest in our Petrobras”. He admits that the pt lost in 2018 because of “errors we committed”, but says they were economic, not ethical. With growth stagnant unemployment soaring, “the role of government is to put money on the table,” he says.
If the election were held today, the most likely outcome would be a runoff between Lula and Mr Bolsonaro. Some of Lula’s critics would hold their noses and vote for him. “At least the pt is on the democratic spectrum,” says Mr Cardoso, whose Party of Brazilian Social Democracy was long its biggest rival. Centrist parties are scrambling to find an alternative. “Lula and Bolsonaro see the country in the rear-view mirror,” says Luciano Huck, a tv host who may run. Other options include João Doria, governor of São Paulo, and Ciro Gomes, a former governor who came third in 2018. But if more than one runs, they could split the centrist vote.
If Mr Bolsonaro loses, there may be protests. The ex-foreign minister called those who disputed Mr Trump’s loss “good citizens”. In any bolsonarista uprising, some Brazilian police might join in. As for the army, it could split the ranks, says a former officer. That is what happened in 1964. The coup against João Goulart, a populist president, was widely supported by Brazilians hopeful that democracy would soon return. The generals ruled for 21 years.
Carlos Alberto Santos Cruz, Mr Bolsonaro’s former chief of staff, insists today’s generals are committed to democracy. Those in the cabinet joined as citizens, not soldiers, he says. Still, he admits the 6,000-odd soldiers in government jobs leave the impression “that the military is participating.” Many may want Mr Bolsonaro to stay, including Eduardo Pazuello, a former health minister under scrutiny by the cpi for ignoring pleas from Manaus before hospitals ran out of oxygen in January. The army despises the pt for its role in corruption and for creating a truth commission to investigate human-rights abuses under the dictatorship. In 2018, before the supreme court rejected an appeal to save Lula from prison, the army commander tweeted that his institution was “on the alert” and “shares the desire of all good citizens to repudiate impunity”. It was perceived by many as a warning.
Mr Bolsonaro calls the armed forces “my army”. He says he could order them to open businesses that governors have shut because of the pandemic. The recent resignation of senior commanders suggests they might reject such orders, but Mr Bolsonaro is trying to make them more loyal, says Antonio Ramalho, a professor of international relations at the University of Brasília. Soldiers have had wage increases and been spared the deepest pension cuts. In February the president tried unsuccessfully to award Mr Pazuello a fourth star. Changing promotion rules so that younger officers can advance quickly is a tactic that worked well for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. “People underestimated Bolsonaro,” Mr Ramalho says. “He’s thinking ahead.