BRASILIA - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro surmounted a crucial hurdle for his young government on Wednesday by winning approval from disgruntled lower house lawmakers for his move to reorganize the country's executive branch.
The vote on the first decree he issued the day he took parties in Congress, which is threatening to derail his agenda after months of mutual antagonism.
The decree that reduced the number of ministries to 20, from 29 previously, was due to expire on June 3.
Failure to gain approval would have thrown the government into crisis, forcing a ministry reshuffle and increasing doubts that he can rally support for an ambitious pension reform bill — the cornerstone of his economic agenda — now in the hands of a political class he openly insults.
A former army captain and apologist for Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship, Bolsonaro wielded little influence in his three decades in Congress and cast his grassroots campaign as a crusade against the horse trading of Brazil's "old politics."
"Bolsonaro despises democracy. We have to isolate his anti-democratic attitude and lack of respect for institutions so this does not paralyze the country," lawmaker Marcelo Ramos, chairman of the congressional committee on pension reform, told Reuters.
Ramos said Bolsonaro was unable to build a coalition with the 308 votes needed to pass the pension bill, aimed at saving 1.2 trillion reais ($300 billion) in a decade to restore investor confidence and jump-start a weak economy. Ramos estimated the bill could currently only muster 200 votes.
Labor and Pensions Secretary Rogerio Marinho said on Wednesday that between 250 and 270 lower house lawmakers had spoken favorably about pension reform.
Bolsonaro has said he would rather work with issue-focused caucuses than party leaders and has called on his supporters via social media to pressure lawmakers obstructing his agenda.
He attacked the political class on Monday for being the country's "big problem" and blamed interest groups for impeding him from governing.
Ramos and Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who broke off talks with the head of Bolsonaro's coalition in the lower house on Tuesday, have said they plan to move ahead with the legislative agenda with or without the government's help.
Wednesday's vote was a sign that the center-right parties in Congress intend to do just that, despite their frustration with Bolsonaro's refusal to reach out to them with government jobs and support for projects in their constituencies.