Standing in front of thousands of loyal supporters at his re-election campaign launch last month, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro took the microphone and singled out a dignitary from the crowded stage.
“We have the outstanding presence of the speaker of the [House of Representatives], my longtime friend, Arthur Lira. He owns the agenda of the House. If it wasn’t for Arthur Lira, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point,” said the far-right leader.
It was a frank admission of reality. For more than a year Lira and the political bloc he leads, an amorphous group known as the Centrão, has propped up Bolsonaro’s administration, staving off more than 100 impeachment requests and pushing big government spending packages through Congress.
In exchange, Lira and the Centrão, which means “Big Centre”, have become immensely powerful and cleaved off big chunks of public funds for discretionary use in what is known as the “secret budget”.
While the Bolsonaro administration has lurched from crisis to crisis, including its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and corruption allegations against the president’s family, Lira and the Centrão have become political kingmakers.
“The Centrão rules Brazil, without a doubt,” said Ciro Gomes, a leftwing former lawmaker who is challenging the Brazilian leader in the October election. “Bolsonaro sold out to them completely,”
The Centrão today encompasses a handful of political parties and 220 out of the 513 federal lawmakers, known as deputados. It traces its origins to the end of the military dictatorship in the late 1980s when parliamentarians banded together to support weak, democratically elected presidents.
Since then it has become embedded in Brazilian politics, offering support to governments of any stripe, left or right, in exchange for plum political posts and the resources to support its electoral machines in home constituencies.
“I usually say that more than a specific group, the Centrão describes a type of parliamentary behaviour,” said Graziella Testa, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. “It is a group of parliamentarians who are more concerned with being close to government resources than to any independent political orientation or ideology.”
As a populist outsider on the campaign trail in 2018, Bolsonaro railed against the horse-trading and pork barrel politics of the bloc. But when corruption allegations against him and his family surfaced, he quickly forged an alliance with the group that arguably saved his government.
Despite being booed by the crowd at Bolsonaro’s campaign event, Lira has single-handedly prevented impeachment proceedings against the president by simply shelving the requests.
Elected speaker with the backing of Bolsonaro in 2021, the lawmaker from northeastern Alagoas has also played a crucial role in pushing through several pieces of government legislation, including a massive spending package that increases cash transfers to Brazil’s poorest by 50 per cent ahead of the election.
“Lira has the sword of Damocles dangling permanently over Bolsonaro’s head,” said Filipe Campante, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, referring to the speaker’s control over impeachment proceedings. “The Centrão is as strong as they’ve ever been and that is due to the fact that the executive is as weak as it has ever been.”
In return for its support, the bloc has claimed crucial government posts, notably the presidential chief of staff, which is currently held by Ciro Nogueira, who was a vocal supporter of consecutive leftwing administrations before joining the Bolsonaro administration.
Analysts say, however, that the Centrão’s real prize has been its growing influence in the allocation of government funds. With support from the government, the leaders of Congress in 2020 created the so-called “secret budget”, a legal but opaque mechanism to transfer funds from the executive to lawmakers’ constituencies.
Felipe Rigoni, an opposition lawmaker, said the Centrão has “without doubt become more and more powerful and the secret budget is proof of that”.
“There has always been this type of behaviour that today is called the secret budget, which is the allocation of funds in exchange for voting in favour of government projects in Congress. But it was much more timid, with much less money. The secret budget is now worth absurd amounts and this is a risk to the democratic process.”
While parliamentarians have always received government cash for public works projects, the budgets were limited in size and there was transparency about who received how much. In the past two years, the size of these stipends has almost tripled, while the recipients have been shrouded in mystery. The funds are typically used for health, education or infrastructure spending — projects that lawmakers can burnish to voters come election time.
Transparency watchdogs suggest one-quarter of Brazil’s discretionary budget of R$143bn ($28bn) is now controlled by Congress. In June alone, R$6.6bn was paid out by the government as part of the “secret budget” scheme, according to Open Accounts, a transparency group.
Lira declined to comment.
“For there to be democracy, there needs to be transparency. With the secret budget, you decrease transparency in a crucial process, which is the allocation of resources,” said Testa.
Campante added: “It concentrates power in the leaders in Congress. They choose who gets [funds] and who doesn’t.”
Analysts are watching for how the bloc will react if the political status quo is overturned with the October election.
In opinion polls, Bolsonaro is trailing his chief rival, leftwing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, by between 10 and 18 percentage points.
While in power between 2003 and 2010, Lula worked in tandem with the Centrão to govern. But he will face a more muscular and proactive bloc if he wins re-election this year.
“The Centrão have tasted additional power and clout and access to the budget and they’re going to be very reluctant to relinquish it. We’re not going back to it being an auxiliary player,” said Campante. “The balance of power has shifted.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza