By Bernardo Caram, Ricardo Brito and Flavia Marreiro
BRASILIA (Reuters) – A wave of new government spending by President Jair Bolsonaro may be giving him a boost in the final stretch of a close reelection campaign, opinion polling shows, in a dangerous precedent for electoral law, according to legal experts.
The new measures will cost some 273 billion reais ($52 billion) this year and next, according to an analysis of government figures by Reuters, adding to fiscal challenges for whoever wins the election. Congressional approval is pending for 146 billion reais worth of that spending.
Some of the experts said the right-wing government’s spending spree violates electoral rules by using public resources to help Bolsonaro win re-election in Sunday’s runoff against leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Bolsonaro’s office did not reply to a request for comment.
Federal prosecutors responsible for enforcing electoral law have not taken up calls to investigate the allegations of the president’s abuse of his budgetary authority. Lula has not challenged the government’s new spending at the Supreme Electoral Court.
Although Lula could do so, a senior campaign aide said he is holding off a court challenge to avoid opening himself to attacks from Bolsonaro appealing to poor voters, who are major Lula supporters.
Congress opened the door for much of the new spending with legislation that suspended a constitutional budget cap and created an “emergency” exemption to electoral law, which normally limits campaign season splurges.
The largest single new expense in the federal budget was a 50% boost to welfare payments for the poorest Brazilians, who now receive 600 reais per month from the program, called Auxilio Brasil, at a cost of 26 billion reais this year alone.
Lula led Bolsonaro in the first-round vote by 5 percentage points overall, an advantage that opinion polls showed was bolstered by lower-income Brazilians. However, surveys by pollster Datafolha over the past month show he may be losing ground with recipients of Auxilio Brasil payments.
Bolsonaro’s support from those voters rose to 40% in a Datafolha poll released last week, up from 33% the prior week. In a late September survey, when more candidates were in the race, Bolsonaro got 26% support from Auxilio Brasil recipients.
Several polling firms were criticized following the first round of voting on Oct. 2 for underestimating support for Bolsonaro.
WELFARE ROLL ADDITIONS
In the past month, the government has added about half a million families to the welfare rolls, extended a registration deadline and brought forward some of the payments.
Auxilio Brasil is not the only program that government critics and legal experts have flagged on suspicion of skirting electoral law. Other benefits include early withdrawals from a federal workers severance fund, promises of tax exemptions for low-income earners, increases in federal employee wages and the renegotiation of consumer debts at a state bank.
The boost to social spending amid this year’s campaign is an unprecedented violation of electoral laws, said Eloisa Machado, a law professor at the FGV think tank in Sao Paulo.
“There are plenty of signs that the president is deviating from the purpose of social and economic policies to obtain personal electoral advantage,” she said in an interview.
A federal tax cut on fuel and cooking gas is another example of public policy bending to electoral aims, she said.
($1 = 5.2565 reais)
(Reporting by Bernardo Caram and Ricardo Brito in Brasilia, Flavia Marreiro in Sao Paulo; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Grant McCool)