BRASILIA/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A college dropout born in exile during Brazil’s long military dictatorship was elected as the new speaker of the house for Latin America’s biggest nation, thrusting his center-right party back into the spotlight amid deep political turbulence.
The selection on Thursday of Rodrigo Maia, the pragmatic 46-year-old scion of a political family, to lead Brazil’s unruly lower house bodes well for interim President Michel Temer.
Temer wants to push unpopular austerity measures through the lower house in a bid to stabilize the nation’s ailing economy _ and will have an easier time doing so with his personal choice Maia setting the agenda of the house.
Maia, from the Democratas (DEM) Party, wept upon winning the speakership and vowed to lead the house with “simplicity” - which would be a stunning change from the chaotic manner of former speaker, the scandal-plagued Eduardo Cunha.
Cunha was forced from office on corruption charges - but did not leave before engineering the impeachment of suspended President Dilma Rousseff in May.
A federal deputy since 1999, Maia is known for reaching out to and supporting leftist colleagues when needed. He also reached out to the left in his bid for the speakership in recent days.
“I wouldn’t have won without the left,” Maia told journalists following his victory. “All together, we have the conditions to come up with a consensus agenda.”
His immediate priorities are creating a federal spending cap and pension reform - which he hopes to accomplish in his short mandate that only runs until next February.
Temer praised the election of his ally.
“There will be much more harmony, which will be useful for the presidency,” he said at an event on Thursday.
Congressional support for unpopular measures such as pension reform, which requires a super majority of 308 representatives to amend the constitution, remains uncertain. Still, Maia’s background as an experienced dealmaker boosted market optimism.
Stocks climbed to their highest in more than one year, and the currency gained more than 1 percent.
Maia represents the comeback of the DEM party, which even in Brazil’s scandal-ridden congress stands out, with dozens of its members facing charges or under investigation for a litany of accusations.
But the party has been trying to portray itself as a rejuvenated, urbane and more pragmatic group than it was two decades ago.
Then, it was known as the Liberal Front Party (PFL) and was a junior member of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s governing coalition.
But since the turn of the century it has shrank in size, mostly because its stronghold in northeastern Brazil where it had long controlled pork-barrel politics began to support Lula’s Workers Party.
Maia, the son of former Rio de Janeiro mayor Cesar Maia, became a leader of the Democratas early in his career, as the party struggled in opposition to the popular Lula during his two terms.
Within the party, Maia rose by strongly advocating for and winning a party re-branding.
PFL shifted focus to the urban middle-classes dissatisfied with Lula’s leftist policies and renamed itself the Democrats in 2007, the same year Maia was elected party president.
Born in the Chilean capital Santiago in 1970 where his family sought exile from a military dictatorship in Brazil, Maia had a brief stint in banking, working at mid-sized lenders Banco BMG SA [BNBMG.UL] and Banco Icatu SA before starting his political career in 1996 at age 26.
He studied economics but did not graduate, according to his biography at the lower house’s website.
Writing by Silvio Cascione and Brad Brooks; Editing by Alistair Bell