The election pits the most unabashedly crass leader in decades, right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, against the most enduring mark of the left, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The polls say that the election is Lula’s to lose. Still, his supporters and a good number of pundits are predicting an increasingly nasty election – “one of the most violent and mendacious campaigns in history”, said the O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper. warned – in which nothing less than Brazilian civility, law and order, and democracy itself is at stake.
Yet the heart of Brazil’s political mess lies in the “Centrão,” or Grand Milieu, an amalgamation of political parties with no discernable principles or loyalties, only ambitions and appetites. Whoever takes office on January 1 faces a familiar Faustian bargain: make a deal with a restless legislature dominated by this alliance of opportunists, or go it alone and risk scuttling governability and perhaps the presidential term itself. same.
In a fractured field between 32 registered parties, the next president of Brazil will take office with reduced political capital. Splinter democracy is the norm in Latin America, but Brazil’s electoral system borders on incoherence. With taxpayer-funded campaign finance and guaranteed free TV time for every new party, the system is rigged for self-replication. From 1988 to 2018, the famously prolific Brazil list of effective parties — a composite index of votes and seats in Congress — multiplied quadruple, from four to 16. New rules establishing a voting threshold for microparties promise to winnow the field, but change will come slowly. So much the better for the Big Middle, whose fortunes soar as presidents get agitated.
“The Centrão’s strength emerges from the hyper-fragmented party system,” political analyst Octavio Amorim Neto, of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, told me. “It’s bad for whoever is in power. The constant interest of the Centrão weakens the president to obtain advantages.
The Centrão helped organize the removal of Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992 and Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Both presidents had snubbed them. The Centrão has also survived two seismic corruption scandals – a Congressional kickback scheme in 2004-2005 and the landmark car wash Paid survey from 2014-2021 – only to see moralizing prosecutors demoralized. Tellingly, as former Car Wash presiding magistrate Sérgio Moro fell into disrepute for his judicial abuse, some of the Centrão’s top convicts saw their cases overturned and deleted records.
Bolsonaro, channeling Donald Trump, regularly attacks the integrity of the Brazilian electoral system and surrounds himself with soldiers. Such theaters have fueled fears that Brazil’s tender democracy is in jeopardy. But Bolsonaro’s script is a song of weakness, not strength. With little apparent interest in governing and following Lula through double digits in most polls, Bolsonaro has increasingly left the levers of power and patronage jobs to the go-to Centrão operators. They have made an art of holding presidents to ransom.
In 2019, Centrão lawmaker Ricardo Barros helped launch a congressional investigation into Bolsonaro’s alleged role in spreading fake news, to be named head of government in Congress later that year. Unsurprisingly, the probe ended up failing. “The logic of the Centrão is that of political extortion,” said Luciano Da Ros, a political scientist from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, co-author with American researcher Matthew M. Taylor of “Brazilian politics on trial: corruption and reform under democracy.”
Holding the budget hostage is another specialty of Centrão. In most countries, public money is tied down by fixed spending mandates, for example for pensions and salaries, leaving it up to the executive to designate the lion’s share of what is left as discretionary funds. The US Congress spends only 2.3% of total discretionary funds on pork barrel projects. In Brazil, under opaque rules drafted by the Centrão, lawmakers proportionally control five times that amount (11.6%) of pork, according to a study by Marcos Mendes, economist at Insper business school. Indeed, Brazil’s share of discretionary spending exceeds that of 29 of the wealthiest nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Mendes found.
Bolsonaro has proven to be particularly vulnerable against Centrão. But what about Lula? Silly question. During his first administration, he helped to empower them and could not have governed without them. “The Centrão is malleable. They are at home in any government, right or left,” Da Ros said.
Talk of an impending coup misses the point. Latin America’s largest constitutional democracy is indeed in deep trouble – but not because of authoritarianism. The real problem is the threat in the middle.