Arm wrestling

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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

Conflicts between the executive, legislative and judiciary can cause a paralyzing institutional crisis

The time frame for the demarcation of indigenous lands became a heavy struggle between the Republic's institutions. The government defended the position contrary to the ruralist group, which wanted to limit expropriations to lands occupied by ethnic groups until the date of the 1988 constitution. The STF adopted the same stance as the government, against the time frame, but admitted compensation for producers who purchased indigenous lands “in good faith”, forcing the government to pay for improvements and bare land.

To complete the imbroglio, the Senate voted 42 to 23 for a law that contradicts the Supreme Court's decision regarding the time frame and added other barbarities. At the same time, the Chamber entered into obstruction, ostensibly to force the executive to hand over the positions of Caixa Econômica Federal and Funasa to Centrão politicians appointed by Arthur Lira.

This is not just about appointing the presidents of these institutions, but what is called “closed doors”, that is, all positions. The offensive by the Chamber and the Senate is not a coincidence, but an action combined with heavy influence from the ruralist group, aiming to put the government on the defensive.

What is at stake is a conflict that comes from far away and has to do with the role of each of the Republic's institutions and the relationships between them. Centrão, a composition of deputies and senators with varied conservative or even reactionary agendas combined with a dispute for increasingly larger portions of the budget, became the dominant force in Congress, especially in the Chamber of Deputies. The fragility of the executive in the Bolsonaro government meant a growing empowerment of this reactionary/physiological majority, which was strengthened with the increase in this group in the last elections.

Lula has a secure vote in Congress that can (and at the limit) block opposition constitutional amendments. I say at the limit because the votes of those elected by so-called center-left parties, such as the PSB and the PDT, have not been firm in their support for the executive. The majority that voted for the time frame law in the Senate included several elements from these parties, showing that the agribusiness bench has tentacles in the government's own parliamentary base.

On the other hand, all the concessions made by the executive to attract Centrão parties to join the government base have proven to be insufficient. Despite being part of the government, all of these parties, with the exception of the MDB, voted mostly (and even entirely) with ruralist interests and against the government.

The conflict increases with the intention of ruralists to vote on a PEC allowing Congress to change the decisions of the Federal Supreme Court. All of this occurs despite the release of amendments and more amendments favoring the “buying” of votes at retail. It is increasingly clear that the physiological power game involves decisions by Arthur Lira, who has shown the ability to control this component of Congress to approve what interests him or to pressure the Executive for more concessions in public positions.

There are those who point to an original flaw in the formation of the government's base, without a previously agreed program between the parties. In my opinion, the hole is much lower, as it is a party group where there is no construction of programs that guide electoral campaigns and allow voters to vote consciously. Worse still, not even the so-called ideological parties, such as the PT and PCdoB, have formulated government programs to submit to voters.

The campaign was guided by a rather shallow set of slogans, with Lula selling a “return to the past”, a return to the kindnesses of his governments (silence about Dilma Rousseff's governments) which were quite idealized and, above all, a campaign centered on the denial of Bolsonarist threat. It was enough to elect Lula, but it was not enough to create a strong bench in Congress.

How can we explain that Lula achieved more than double the votes obtained by the parties that supported him? This decoupling between the majority vote and the proportional vote is not a recent phenomenon, but in these elections it was much more significant. Is this the consequence of the use of public resources for local projects (parliamentary amendments) influencing the electorate? Or is this combined with the general jam of our politics making it difficult to identify party programs that are more in line with the interests of the broad masses? Or did the reactionary vote, centered on issues of “customs” find a deep echo in the level of consciousness of the electorate?

It is also important to note that the ruralist vote is much stronger than the social base directly linked to agriculture. A partial explanation can be found in the distortion, inherited from the times of the dictatorship and not eradicated in the Constituent Assembly, attributing a totally disproportionate weight of votes to predominantly rural states with a low weight in the number of voters, in the North and Central West. But this doesn't explain everything. We should research the weight of agribusiness' strong articulation with other sectors of the economy (industrial and financial) and the use of its many resources to favor supporters even in urban electoral bases.

The evident fact is that the ruralist, evangelical and “security” benches, nicknamed “BBB or bull, bible and bullet” have a disproportionate weight in Congress, with or without the political element of ultra-reactionary Bolsonarism. I say with or without this ideological sauce because it is not essential for the consolidation of this bloc, even though it still has weight in the electorate.

And we are left with the worst of all worlds. The regime is not parliamentary, but Congress heavily interferes in the executive's management capacity. If we were in parliamentarism, the executive would be an extension of Congress and responsibility for the government would lie more clearly with deputies and senators. There would be no contradiction between the majority vote and the proportional vote. But parliamentarism requires the existence of another type of parties, more programmatic and ideological, that present themselves to the electorate as options for national government and not as a sum of candidates with parochial interests.

The Centrão's attempt to dominate the STF with a PEC allowing congress to review the supreme court's decisions will come to nothing as it is obvious that the same supreme court will consider this PEC unconstitutional. The Centrão leaders know this, but they maintain the threat just to harass the STF.

More dangerous at the moment is the outcome of the vote on the time frame in the Senate. The base senators want Lula to veto the entirety of the law while others, in the government and in the PT, prefer a partial veto. This position is based on the idea that this law is already dead as unconstitutional, due to the STF's recent decision against the landmark. Appealing to the supreme would be a mere formality. But the partial veto is indicative of the government's position in relation to the landmark and accepting the position of the ruralist caucus, even if only to make an apparent concession, weakens the indigenous people's cause. This is so obvious that one wonders what the government's real intention is.

In my opinion, the government is between a rock and a hard place with the problem posed by the STF in admitting compensation for those who purchased indigenous lands “in good faith”. As lie detectors are not applied to occupants of indigenous lands in “good faith”, the criterion will be subjective and the decision will be in the hands of the first instance judges, subject to revisions until reaching the supreme court. You can expect that the number of demarcations will be greatly reduced.

On the other hand, the government will not want to pay fortunes to land grabbers (or not) regardless of faith, in the case of confirming the rights of ruralists and will prefer not to expand the demarcations so as not to burden the budget. The picture is already complicated at present because there are a lot of congressmen with properties that have already incorporated demarcated indigenous lands. So many men “in good faith” will want to be compensated that even this current expanded spending cap will not be enough.

In other words, the three powers of the Republic are in conflict in this case of indigenous lands and this has an impact on the environmental issue, as it has been more than demonstrated that the indigenous people are the best defenders of the standing forest.

Meanwhile, the general public is ignoring this debate and only indigenous people and their supporters and environmentalists are mobilizing. A clearer position from the federal government would be important to expand popular mobilization, but there are no signs that this will occur.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).


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