Brazil's Bolsonaro faces political test as new Congress sits


Brasília (AFP)

Plans by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to shake up Latin America's biggest economy with pro-business reforms and anti-crime measures are about to run into their first real test, with his country's new Congress beginning work Friday.

Bolsonaro, a far-right 63-year-old former paratrooper and veteran legislator, took office at the beginning of the year on promises to do away with decades of center-leftist policies.

Chief among his vows are an easing of gun-ownership laws so "good" citizens can counter armed criminals, an eradication of graft, and a liberalization of a protectionist economy that is still limping after exiting its worst-ever recession.

On the first pledge, Bolsonaro acted swiftly, decreeing much looser regulation for possessing up to four firearms at home.

On corruption, however, actions have not yet followed stern rhetoric. Indeed, the president is dogged by an expanding suspicious payments scandal involving his son Flavio Bolsonaro, a lawmaker in the upper chamber.

And on the economy, there have been no concrete measures unveiled.

Bolsonaro delivered a much-anticipated speech to the high-powered crowd at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, but disappointed for his lack of any detail on pension reform and privatizations -- the two key changes investors are looking for.

- No majority -

Much of Bolsonaro's credibility rests on the shoulders of his economy minister, Paulo Guedes, a US-trained free-marketeer, and his justice minister, Sergio Moro, a former star anti-corruption judge.

What Bolsonaro lacks, however, is a ruling-party majority in Congress to push through legislation.

The president's ultraconservative Social Liberal Party (PSL) holds around 10 percent of the 513 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies. That means he is relying on ad-hoc alliances with likeminded lawmakers.

Such alliances should be forthcoming in the early period of Bolsonaro's four-year mandate. The president enjoys high public support, and backing from Congressional caucuses representing the powerful evangelical, beef and pro-gun lobbies that helped swing his electoral victory.

Whether that support for Boslonaro survives unpopular moves to overhaul Brazil's unsustainably generous pension system, by raising the retirement age and cutting benefits, remains to be seen. Such changes would need modifications to the constitution.

"In whatever country, that's a really difficult reform to do. If the government manages it, it will have a lot of (political) capital," said Carlos Pereira, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

"If not, I'd fear for his ability to govern afterwards," he added.

The scandal around Flavio Bolsonaro could make the president's task even more difficult, according to Pereira.

"Without a stable coalition, the suspicions of corruption could make the president very vulnerable," he said.

- 'Different' legislature -

The new Congress is atomized, with some 30 parties present in the lower chamber. The two biggest are the PSL and the opposition Workers Party.

It is estimated that Bolsonaro can currently count on support of around 300 deputies -- close to the 3/5 majority, or 308 votes, needed to push through constitutional amendments.

That bloc will also be important for Bolsonaro to expand an easing of gun laws to also allow citizens to carry weapons, something currently prohibited except for the military, police and licensed private security guards.

One deputy, Andre Figueredo of the opposition leftwing Democratic Labour Party, told AFP that the make-up of the Congress and the leadership of Bolsonaro made for a "different moment from previous years" of rule.

"We have a president who, although is not in our political field, was elected by the majority of the Brazilian population," he said.

Pension reform was obviously on the cards, he said, but "we hope that this reform will be one that does not bring so much damage to the great mass of the workers."