As Brazil's Congress Rests, the Embattled President Is Very Busy

  • Government working phones to shore up support among lawmakers
  • Threats to administration include impeachment and corruption

The once-bustling capital city of Brasilia has, on the surface, turned into just another sleepy town in Brazil’s central plains during the current six-week congressional recess. Afternoon traffic on the main drag has disappeared, restaurants are half-empty and the frantic rush at the airport at the start and end of the week has diminished.

But behind that veneer of calm, President Dilma Rousseff and her team are hard at work.

The administration is busy working the phones with legislators and meeting with business leaders to build on their political victories from the final weeks of 2015. Wins that boosted her political capital included congressional approval of her 2016 budget and a Supreme Court ruling on impeachment that favored the government. Her decision to replace the finance minister with someone seen as closer to her Workers’ Party also resolved a source of tension in her administration.

The government is betting its efforts to increase momentum during the recess will improve chances of beating impeachment and winning approval of measures to end the recession. Its optimism marks a contrast to early last month, when the government was pushing lawmakers to remain in Brasilia over the break to help resolve the political and economic crises before public opinion could sour even more against the president.

"Without the fights with the legislature and judiciary occupying headlines, the government has room to reinforce its own message," according to Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia.

Skeptical Investors

Rousseff met with political reporters over breakfast both this week and last to spread the word that her government will redouble efforts to boost confidence in the economy, by slowing double-digit inflation and shrinking the widest budget deficit on record. "We need to have fiscal balance and get inflation under control if we want to achieve economic growth," she said Friday.

Investors are skeptical she can succeed, as the benchmark stock index fell 11 percent in the first two weeks of the year and the real plunged 2 percent.

Stopping the economic meltdown and improving Brazil’s fiscal health may depend largely on Congress passing Rousseff’s measures to boost taxes and cut spending. Many pro-government lawmakers have been taking advantage of the break from committee meetings and late-night votes to push colleagues to back the president’s agenda, said Congressman Eduardo da Fonte, a supporter of the administration and leader of the Progressive Party in the lower house.

“The recess is good for the government because we have more time to prepare the coalition to back important measures to face the economic crisis,” he said.

Impeachment Process

The biggest item on the agenda when Congress returns Feb. 1 is impeachment, although the Carnival holiday on Feb. 8-9 may delay any real work until mid-month. Rousseff faces accusations she broke the budget law by using accounting tricks to minimize the size of the budget deficit. She denies wrongdoing.

Even opposition lawmakers who support her ouster such as Congressman Mendonca Filho acknowledged this week that support for Rousseff’s removal has waned. Street demonstrations designed to drum up support for impeachment last month drew smaller crowds than rallies backing the government.

But Brazil’s growing investigation into graft threatens to ensnare the government and halt its recent momentum. Local media last week reported that three of Rousseff’s ministers, including her chief of staff, are coming under scrutiny for their ties to a businessman in jail for corruption. The three say they did nothing wrong. The scandal, coupled with the sinking economy, will increase support for impeachment, opposition leader Mendonca said.

While political challenges undoubtedly will persist, Rousseff still could manage to enter the new legislative year in a better position than 2015, said Riordan Roett, director of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

"Hot tempers may be somewhat cooler after Carnival," he said.

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