Opinion – Marcos Lisboa: The weakened presidency

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Opinion – Marcos Lisboa: The weakened presidency

The Lula government treated the main parties of the social-democracy alliance that supported FHC as enemies, while negotiating with the parochial “center” to gain support in Congress.

Truman Capote quoted a phrase by Saint Teresa D’Avila: “There are more tears shed for answered prayers than for unanswered ones.” In the 2000s, the PT got what it wanted by choosing alliances to govern. If he wins a new election, he will have to deal with the trap of running a country dominated by the politics he helped to build.

During FHC’s presidency, PT’s rhetoric aimed to denounce government initiatives. There was no dialogue about the problems facing the country. FHC and his support base in Congress were opponents to be eliminated.

In 2003, the PT won the election for the Presidency of the Republic, but not a majority in Congress. Social-democracy parties had a relevant share of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, as did the PMDB. The legislature was also populated by small parties dominated by parochial interests.

There were divergent views in the Lula government on how to establish alliances in the Legislature. One party publicly defended an agreement with the PMDB. Finance Minister Antonio Palocci, in turn, preferred to negotiate the reform agenda on a case-by-case basis, generally with the support of left-wing and social-democracy parliamentarians, approving measures such as consigned credit, the bankruptcy law and new credit instruments.

There were conflicts within the government that reached the press, in crooked ways. Many, contrary to the Ministry of Finance, defended the rescue of the traditional instruments for granting subsidies and protections for selected sectors, similar to those adopted by the Geisel government. The economic team’s proposal to focus part of social spending on the poorest, which would become the Bolsa Família, was denounced as “liberal” by government officials and intellectuals who supported it.

The policies adopted from 2006 onwards, systematized by Marcos Mendes in his column on February 26, were defended by a large part of the government since 2003. They began to be adopted on a larger scale after the change of the economic team in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Planalto negotiated another agreement. The option was for an alliance with small parties and included the distribution of key positions in companies controlled by the government. Many had weak governance. Its executives often had individual authority in the management, being little scrutinized by committees or control bodies.

The PT’s objective seems to have been to guarantee its hegemony without having to negotiate with congressional groups interested in deliberating on the public policy agenda. Marcus Melo and Carlos Pereira document how Lula assembled a government coalition exceptionally far from the legislature’s median preference. More importantly, it shared little management with its partners. The president’s party occupied 60% of the ministries even though it only held 18% of the seats in the Chamber, opting for unorthodox mechanisms of co-option, such as the appointment of directors in companies under the influence of the Planalto.

The Mensalão scandal revealed possible illicit actions in the management of some of these companies. The investigation, however, ended up focusing on the case of Visanet, a private company with participation by Banco Brasil. Meanwhile, the coalition promoted by the PT in exchange for positions in government-controlled companies continued to prosper. The result, years later, was “Petrolão”.

After the 2008 crisis, the Lula government’s development agenda gained strength. As is often the case, there was enthusiasm from the private sector that attended the party. Big projects were started. An attempt was made to transform Petrobras into a world leader in its sector and to rebuild the naval industry in Brazil, while the government distributed subsidies to private investment.

The traditional instruments of developmentalism stimulate the economy in the short term, but they are short-lived. Problems arise a few years later and are long lasting. Most of the big projects started in the second Lula government failed. Many were not completed, others proved to be inefficient.

After 2010, two politically incompetent governments, Dilma and Bolsonaro, resulted in a weakening of the Presidency of the Republic. Congress, with the strengthening of the “centrão”, approved amendments to the Constitution guaranteeing the “imposition” of parliamentary amendments. In the Bolsonaro government, with the connivance of the Planalto, the rapporteur’s amendment was recreated, which, in the 1990s, was at the origin of the “budget midgets” scandal.

This year, each parliamentarian can freely spend more than R$20 million, without having to negotiate an agenda for the country. If he is allied with the leadership of Congress, he can have access to a much larger sum of public resources. All in all, parliamentarians have at their disposal an amount equivalent to 74.6% of the federal government’s investment spending.

The legislative agenda was hijacked by parochial measures. Eletrobras’ capitalization requires the construction of thermoelectric plants far from both the gas producing regions and the market where there is a shortage of supply. The fiscal slack of the PEC from the precatories made resources available for the rapporteur’s amendment and other benefits for interest groups, such as the exemption of payroll for some sectors.

Social democracy, on the other hand, has dwindled. For those who follow the backstage of Brasília, programmatic discussions between parties have become irrelevant. In its place, a patchwork web has sprung up around the Congressional leadership. Parliamentarians, from left to right, incorporated the practices of the “centrão”, negotiating pieces of the rapporteur’s amendment and measures to meet pressure groups.

The next election will be a marked card game. Congress approved R$4.9 billion for the Electoral Fund. These resources will be distributed by the party summits to the candidates of their interest. The others will find it difficult to make themselves heard, not least because private campaign funding has been restricted.

The president to be elected this year will have difficulties in rescuing the attributions of the Executive. Why would parliamentarians give up the prerogatives that allow them to distribute resources to their parishes? Current economic conditions are far more difficult than they were in 2003. The same is true of politics.

There was a wasted alliance after the 2002 election. Some believe that development depends on government incentives for investment; others, that the government should prioritize equal opportunities and ensure competition in the private sector.

The differences are not small. On both sides, however, there are those who defend the rule of law and the need to rescue public policy, which was hijacked by coronelismo. In the current conjuncture, these points of agreement should be sufficient to promote dialogue.

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