11 changes

In 2022, the Brazilian Congress broke the record for changes to the country’s Constitution

Never before Brazil had so many parliamentary amendments approved in such a short period due to a “boosted" Centrão

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasília (DF) |
Arthur Lira (left) spared no effort to approve issues favorable to Bolsonaro - Alex Mirkhan

After helping to make feasible 11 changes in Brazil’s Constitution in just 7 months in 2022, the Brazilian National Congress started a recess on July 18. The number of changes is a record for an electoral year. As soon as the politicians return to work on August 10, they will concentrate on their election campaigns targeting their electoral strongholds.  
The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira (Progressive Party, Piauí state), promulgated a series of modifications at a rapid pace, from female candidates' use of partisan funds to raising the maximum age for superior court magistrates.

Read more: Aid Amendment creates a "state of emergency": what risks does this measure bring?

Down to the wire, on July 14, before the parliamentary recess, the expansion of social aid was made feasible thanks to the last-minute declaration of a state of emergency, disregarding electoral rules and surpassing the government’s spending ceiling. It was a set of maneuvers carried out by the government base in Congress. They have a high potential to benefit the reelection campaign of President Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), according to experts interviewed by Brasil de Fato.
“The legislative process only works when all protocols are followed. When there is a majority like Centrão, not even the protocols are respected, for instance, the right of minority groups to oppose the proposal and the right of evaluating [the proposals] in a commission, which are attempts to persuade others. After all, the Parliament exists to promote debates”, says Lenio Streck, professor of Constitutional Law.  

To the opposition, the support Bolsonaro got is intimately connected with the billionaire exertion he made through rapporteur's budget amendments, also known as the secret budget. According to the NGO Contas Abertas (Open Bills, in English), the month of June, which preceded the approval of a Proposed Constitutional Amendment focused on the aid package, was the record holder for payments of amendments of this type: around 5 billion reais (around US$ 930 million).
“It is billions of reais distributed to federal deputies aligned with the government without any criteria to tackle hunger, reduce the national health service queues, step up learning in schools, maintain students in universities and federal institutes, [create] projects to build houses and recover areas under environmental risk. In short, none of these are priorities”, says federal deputy Alexandre Padilha (Workers’ Party, São Paulo state). 
Political scientist Francisco Fonseca, professor at FGV/Eaesp and Pontifical Catholic University – São Paulo, also points out the interventions by the president of the Chamber of Deputies, such as the suspension of the plenary session in order to prevent being defeated in the voting on the matter. “A non-existent state of emergency was approved, driven by the rise in fuel prices, given the fact that it is up to the federal government to revert the adoption of the International Parity Policy. In other words, the Budget Guidelines Law is a complete perversion, both from the point of view of electoral laws and the legal system”, he asserts.

Opposition on the firing line

The increase in the amount of Auxílio Brasil (Brazil Aid) monthly payment from 400 reais (US$74) to 600 reais (US$112) is seen as a huge trump card Bolsonaro has in trying to expand his voter support before the elections, together with cooking gas vouchers for low-income families and financial assistance to truckers and taxi drivers. Brazil Aid will start to be paid on August 9. Despite the obvious electoral bias, Streck argues that the processing of the agenda put the opposition parties in a difficult situation. 

To him, progressive and leftist federal deputies and senators were under pressure to endorse the government’s agenda. This is because they could be seen as politicians who do not defend social assistance policies. “The opposition voted to approve the measure, but it is a contingency. Maybe they had no other choice, although I personally believe that the opposition committed a mistake in approving it”, he says. 

The numerical advantage and harmony between the Executive Power and Centrão did not prevent the opposition from achieving some victories this year, such as the postponement of the “Poison Bill” and the approval of a wage floor for nursing workers. Even so, the balance is considered below expectations.

“There is a lack of strategy. Even though they have good players, the opposition parties don’t have a good coach. This causes them to get lost in some agendas. There are some victories they celebrate, but the government overlooks them since it doesn't care [about the agendas the opposition won]. The big problem is the agendas regarding democracy and social and economic rights. It is about them that the far right manages to articulate with Centrão and approve what they want”, says Streck.

The Judicial branch is cornered 

The movements led by the federal government also helped to bring Parliament closer to its side, putting to test the institutions responsible for preserving democracy. According to Streck, the main target, as in other fronts opened by Bolsonaro, is the Brazilian Supreme Court, since the Attorney General's Office, currently headed by Augusto Aras, has avoided confronting presidential bursts.

"What if the Judicial power decides to suspend Brazil Aid? Or if the Supreme Court vote for the unconstitutionality of it and that it shouldn’t be transferred to people? Do you think the Judicial system is powerful enough to withstand this attrition?”, asks Streck.

Fonseca highlights the continued effects of the Car Wash Operation in starting the weakening of the Supreme Court, which had a decisive role during Former President Dilma Roussef’s impeachment process. It is a set of factors which, according to Fonseca, puts in suspension the role of the Supreme Court in case Former President Lula wins the elections and begins his term in 2023.

“It seems to me official institutions are going to have to learn that you lose control when you break the rules. Let's see if they really learned that lesson. Now, the Supreme Court will be more legalistic if there is also a government supported by society and Parliament because we have seen that even magistrates appointed by Lula voted in favor of the coup (of Dilma Rousseff)”.

Streck also reinforces the threatening script to democracy that Bolsonaro is building around him and which has been voiced not only by him but also by his allies in strategic areas. “Today we have a Parliament that is dominated by Centrão together with the President of the Republic who is supported by the Armed Forces. In the end, the Parliament and the Executive [power] have the Armed Forces [on their side]. It's unfair because on the other side you have a civil society with difficulties in getting organized to act", he says.

The electoral race to retake the Parliament 

If Centrão's dominance is taken for granted in case Bolsonaro is reelected, the opposition parties hope that things will change in the face of an eventual victory for Lula. The expectation is that the preference for the Workers’ Party candidate will help elect progressive parliamentarians able to change the correlation of forces.

“Is it possible to revert this scenario? Yes, it is. First, this involves a change in the composition of the National Congress. The possibility of Lula being reelected makes the situation better for opposition parties. But it is particularly necessary to change the Chamber of Deputies. Today, the opposition is about 120 parliamentarians, but it needs to have at least 200, 250 parliamentarians to have the majority. Without having 200, 250 – that is, without at least half of the seats – one cannot govern", says Fonseca. 

According to Padilha, there will be no lack of willingness to prevent Lula from “becoming a hostage” to an unfavorable Congress grouped in caucuses that he considers old. “We will need to fight and debate a lot. We will need to work hard to reelect a progressive caucus in Congress to help Lula make the changes that need to be made”, he urges.

Streck agrees that Lula would find a more favorable scenario if he obtained a majority early on. However, he does not rule out the influence of the polling results. “The victory of Lula in the first round would set a new level, embarrassing these strongest sectors of Centrão even if the difference in votes is small. There will be a 'neo center', but maybe it will be less energized in the event of an expressive victory [of Lula]", he concludes.

Edited by: Flávia Chacon