Interviewee: Prof. Dr. Fabiano Santos
Interviewer: Dr. Eric Nogueira Andrade*
Edited and reviewed by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon
Fabiano Santos holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University Research Institute of Rio de Janeiro (IUPERJ). He is a professor/researcher at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the Rio de Janeiro State University (IESP-UERJ), where he coordinates the Observatory of the Brazilian Legislature (OLB), the Center for Congressional Studies (NECON), and the Study Group on Economics and Politics (GEEP). He was the president of the Brazilian Political Science Association (ABCP) and the National Association of Graduate Programs in Social Sciences (ANPOCS). His research field is political science, with an emphasis on legislative studies, Brazilian political institutions, and the theory and practice of social democracy in the contemporary world, with several publications in Brazil and abroad on such topics.
2020 was characterized by a severe health crisis resulting from Covid-19’s spread worldwide. The pandemic brought new challenges to the entire society, requiring effective national responses from incumbent politicians. However, Bolsonaro’s administration, which was already facing intense political and economic crises before it, sustained his previous policies, confronting the Congress priorities in a moment of social distancing and the recent establishment of a system for remote deliberation (SDR).
In your latest book — Congresso Remoto, produced in partnership with the Collaborative Advocacy Network (RAC) — this legislative experience is unfolded through a collection of articles produced by the Brazilian Legislative Observatory (OLB), which you coordinate. How do you evaluate the impact of remote activities, between 2020 and 2021, on Executive-Legislative relations and the conflict of interests between the government and its opposition in the Chamber of Deputies?
We can assess the impact of remote activities in two ways: from an academic point of view; and from a conjunctural and political point of view. From the academic perspective, it is necessary to remember the current theories regarding the legislative process in Brazil, good theories, endowed with conceptual continuity, methodological congruence, and hard to be found in the scenario of the Brazilian political analysis. However, the premise underlying almost all these studies states that the presidency of the Republic, or, in a broader view, the Executive Power, is the beginning and the end of all the mechanics of governability. This view has its origins in the 1988 article, by Sérgio Abranches, on coalition presidentialism, whose argument is that the functioning of presidential governments in multiparty systems, as is the case, is like coalition governments in European multiparty parliamentary regimes, with the distinction of being the maker of governments in the first case, the elected president and not the leader of the main party in the Legislature.
Until Bolsonaro, all presidents formed coalitions, not always majoritarian ones, but most of the time, yes, with formal support from parties that held a majority of seats in Congress. The focus of the debate was, then, on how the coalition worked, how legislators, members of the coalition, behaved, and what explained their greater or lesser discipline and decisions regarding desertion or support. With Bolsonaro, we have something not foreseen by theory: the decision not to form a coalition. We can conjecture the reasons that led him to do this, with his authoritarian inclination and anti-political electoral discourse as important elements in any explanation. However, regarding what happened in Congress, the fact is that there was no composition among the parties from 2019, the beginning of the government, until the end of 2021, when the parties of the so-called “Centrão” explicitly assumed that they were part of the Bolsonarist base in Congress. This period, in which there was an absence of coalition, coincided with the apogee of the pandemic crisis. Thus, the political class was called by society to act and face a denialist government devoid of minimally effective political articulation. We were, therefore, faced with a kind of “natural experiment” – the coalition was withdrawn from the governing process, and we observed the result. And this was a proactive Congress, capable of exercising its functions as a decision-maker and generator of laws, even in a highly complex environment, such as the one worldwide at the beginning of 2020.
From a political point of view, Bolsonaro was led over time to change his strategy, choosing to assemble a coalition in the Legislative, as he saw himself increasingly defeated in important congressional matters and issues, in addition to assessing that the possibility of an impeachment process would increase each day. Today, we have the so-called “Centrão” block, the symbol of traditional politics in the country, as the president’s main support. Thus, in his attempt to be reelected, it will be difficult to seek support in the anti-politics discourse.
Question 2 – Brazil adopts a symmetrical bicameral system with both legislative houses equally relevant for the approval of the federal agenda. What differences can be highlighted in the roles played by the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies during this period of pandemic and government crisis?
The dynamics of the relationship between the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate regarding the Bolsonaro government is one of the most interesting points in this little story of an ultra-right government in Brazil. At the beginning of the government, the Lower House, presided over by deputy Rodrigo Maia, was more withdrawn and rebellious in the face of the federal government’s agenda and initiatives. Maia positioned himself as an independent politician, leader of an equally independent institution, supportive of the Executive in matters of interest to the country, but critical when he understood that the government was not on the right path. In the Upper House, there was a succession to the presidency, winning, after an intense dispute, Senator Davi Alcolumbre, with decisive support from the government through the president’s son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro. Thus, the Senate was relatively more docile in the administration’s initial months.
Throughout the pandemic, the roles have been reversed. From the beginning of 2020 until the end of the year, Rodrigo Maia moves from a neutral situation to one of explicit opposition, imposing successive and important setbacks on the government, threatening the president with the opening of an impediment process. Bolsonaro reacted by negotiating, with federal deputies from various parties, support for Maia’s succession, which took place in February 2021 with the victory of Arthur Lira, a Bolsonarist. Thus, the Chamber of Deputies becomes more loyal to Bolsonaro halfway through his term. In the Senate, the opposite occurs. The lack of articulation with governors and mayors to face the pandemic crisis places the government at the heart of a federative crisis. The Upper House is the locus, par excellence, for the flow of pressures arising from the federation. The mood in this House changes in relation to the government, making the latter begin to express society’s discontent regarding the president dealing with the health topic. The apex of this crisis was expressed, in addition to the election for the presidency of a neutral senator and less pro-government than Alcolumbre, in the Senate’s CPI (Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry) to investigate the responsibility of the Executive regarding the world record of cases and deaths because of the pandemic.
Question 3 – The pandemic raised the worldwide need to discuss and vote on a myriad of issues related to public health. Still, president Jair Bolsonaro demonstrated little interest in the aftermath of the pandemic. In this sense, do you consider the remote deliberation adopted by the Legislative a successful experiment in dealing with the pandemic byproducts or an experiment that ensured the maintenance of the Executive agenda?
The Brazilian legislative experience in the pandemic can be understood as a success story. The Legislature did not stop functioning for a single day. This result alone would be worthy of celebration. We must remember that Bolsonaro intended to ask for a state of siege and govern by decree. Conversely to these intentions, fundamental matters and projects were discussed and approved, in opposition to the government’s interests, the most important being the emergency aid of R$ 600 (Reais). The Executive’s proposal was for something around R$ 200 (Reais). How many jobs, businesses, and lives have not been saved because of congressional action? It is difficult to estimate, but certainly, the Brazilian social tragedy would be much more profound if Congress had not taken the reins of the conjuncture and imposed its will on an insensitive and authoritarian president, as Bolsonaro ended up revealing himself to the political world and society.
It is important to point out the organizational bases on which the remote Legislature was implemented. There were years of investment by society in the institutional training of its main House of Democracy. Years of investment in forming consultants, advisors, information technology, and logistical resources. Despite not being fully aware of this, Brazilian society ended up benefiting a lot. It is not by chance that the main servants at the head of this process, the installation and conduction of the remote Congress, are called upon to describe and explain the Brazilian experience around the world.
Regarding the president’s agenda, it is necessary to separate the political conjuncture of Congress from its institutional capacity. On the one hand, as a result of 2018’s conjuncture, we have a Legislature predominantly conservative, with a large contingent of Bolsonarists, so the government tends to be victorious in most of its initiatives. But, on the other hand, from a structural perspective, the Legislature has been able to represent the most permanent interests of society, even facing an authoritarian and erratic government like the one Brazil has today.
Question 4 – Finally, besides being a specialist in Executive-Legislative relations, you are also a specialist in the political trajectory of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil. It is well-known that the PT’s governments achieved great successes under former president Lula and that he is a potential candidate for the 2022 election. However, consider the unfavorable aspects of his candidacy — strong electoral rejection experienced by PT in recent years, Lava-Jato scandal, the increased deindustrialization, and the legacy of Bolsonaro administration. In the context of “presidencialismo de coalizão,” what challenges are the most relevant for an eventual third Lula term to build a dialogue with Congress, important sectors of the economy, and society that enables a successful government agenda?
A third Lula government would be structurally different from the previous ones for the following reasons: a) the country deindustrialized, making unions and industrial entrepreneurs less politically relevant than they were in 2003-2010. Today, the hegemonic sectors are the ones of agribusiness and financial capital; b) the military returned to politics, now supported by the military police. There is an enormous political task ahead of us, which consists of making the way back for this corporation from where they should never have left because they are failures from a political and managerial point of view; c) Congress is much more fragmented even if compared with what it already was in the 2000s. The difference is not only numerical; however – today, we have a huge number of small right-wing parties linked to the new Brazilian political economy, emerging from the border zones in the Amazon and Midwest. They are leaders linked to militias, extractivists, narco-trafficking, and weapons trafficking. Therefore, it is necessary to civilize this part of the country and the federal government, together with the states and federal courts, must be the protagonist of this process; d) there is a democracy that needs to be rebuilt with the depolarization of the dispute and its reorientation towards moderation and plural coexistence. There is, thus, a task of political culture to be done; e) it is necessary to rebuild basic state capacities and structures that were undone by Bolsonaro, starting with the environmental and human and minority rights areas.
In other words, the task of an eventual Lula government would have to be reconstructing the most basic processes and structures of democratic governance. The issue of support to be sought and made viable will fundamentally depend on the electoral results for the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. The chances increase that minimally effective work will be carried out if the composition of the Legislature moves towards the center and the contingent of center-left parliamentarians increases. Otherwise, it will be impossible or very costly to move forward.
* Dr. Eric Nogueira Andrade holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from UFF and a Ph.D. in Political Science at IESP-UERJ, with a research stay at Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main. He was a researcher at the Center for Congressional Studies (NECON) at IESP-UERJ and is currently a researcher-member of BRaS-center (Brazilian research and studies), based at the University of Würzburg, Germany, where he also acts as associate editor of BRaS-J (Brazilian research and studies Journal). He has a political science background with an emphasis on electoral systems, political competition, and political parties.