April 4, 2019 / 10:31 PM / in 20 days

Brazil's Bolsonaro warms to old-style politics to push pension bill

BRASILIA, April 4 (Reuters) - Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro appealed to leaders of five big centrist parties on Thursday to back his pension reform plan, resorting to the traditional political methods he had condemned during the election campaign.

The government’s deputy Senate whip, Senator Izalci Lucas, told Reuters that Bolsonaro had done well to form a cabinet without political interference. But parties will now get to share some 2,000 second-level federal jobs and have a say on public works that favor their member’s districts.

Bolsonaro, a longtime fringe Congressman, won the top office by criticizing the corruption and extensive horse-trading of Brazilian coalition politics. Those practices directly led to the country’s “Car Wash” scandal, which has been called the largest political graft investigation ever, in which billions of dollars in kickbacks were funneled through politically appointed executives at state-run companies and parties.

To end that, Bolsonaro pledged during his campaign not to use those methods and has tried to govern without embracing a base of parties across the ideological spectrum. But with 30 parties in Brazil’s unwieldy Congress, getting any bill through requires deft negotiating.

Just over 100 days into Bolsonaro’s presidency, his flagship legislative proposal to overhaul the costly pension system and save more than 1 trillion reais ($260 billion) over the next decade has gained no traction in Congress, to the dismay of the market.

The inability of his government to organize backing for the long-awaited but deeply unpopular reform bill, which most economists say is vital to shore up Brazil’s public deficit and avoid slipping back into recession, was on crystal clear display on Wednesday.

That’s when Economy Minister Paulo Guedes was grilled during an acrimonious, six-hour lower house committee hearing and received virtually no support, even from lawmakers within Bolsonaro’s own party. The session was cut short after leftist congressmen opposed to the reform traded insults with Guedes.

‘NEW DIALOGUE’

Bolsonaro met separately with the heads of five centrist parties on Thursday, all of whom back pension reform in principle but want to see the president’s version revised.

“This meeting marks the beginning of a new dialogue where we can express our concerns and build bridges to guarantee the legislative agenda advances,” ACM Neto, head of the powerful Democrats party, told reporters after meeting Bolsonaro.

Geraldo Alckmin, former Sao Paulo governor and head of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, said the pension system must be reformed. But he is opposed to changes that reduce benefits for rural, elderly and disabled workers.

Bolsonaro’s chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni told reporters that the president will meet with more party leaders next week.

House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and other key lawmakers have said they were losing patience with the government’s refusal to negotiate and called on Bolsonaro and his backers to stop trying to govern the country via Twitter, which Bolsonaro says he counts on to get his message directly to voters.

As the political chaos has deepened, Brazilian market volatility has risen, triggering sharp declines in the currency and stocks, and a spike in bond yields. Markets have settled this week, but investors expect volatility to remain high.

While a recent decree issued by the government sets qualification requirements for federal jobs, the parties will now be able to put qualified names forward, Izalci said.

“He is correcting the mistake. By drawing closer to the parties he will get their support,” Izalci said. “Now things will start moving.” (Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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