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Brazil's political heavy hitters weigh in behind pension reform

The challenge facing Brazilian lawmakers of reforming the country’s social security system to put public finances back on track is huge, but one they are meeting head on, finance minister Paulo Guedes said on Friday.

Presenting an image of unity with some of the key congressional figures whose support he needs to help build the political consensus required to secure approval, Guedes said commitment to pension reform across the spectrum is solid.

Separately, Guedes also said the government aims to raise 80 billion reais ($20.7 bln) from privatizations this year and receive another 120 billion reais in transfers from the state development bank BNDES.

Guedes has cut a divisive figure on the government’s signature economic reform proposal, which aims to save over 1 trillion reais over the next decade, and was embroiled in an acrimonious congressional committee hearing with opposition lawmakers this week.

But alongside Senate President Davi Alcolumbre, lower house speaker Rodrigo Maia and the government’s chief congressional whip, Joice Hasselmann, he insisted that he has the full support of President Jair Bolsonaro and other political leaders.

“My experience with the political class has been the best possible, super-constructive,” Guedes said at an event in Campos do Jordao in the state of Sao Paulo.

Alcolumbre said it is vital that the president lead the push for pension reform, but said he must listen to party leaders’ concerns. Bolsonaro met with five party leaders this week and will have more meetings next week, Joice said.

Increasingly public political back-biting over pension reform sparked a steep fall in Brazilian markets in late March, but they have settled this week on signs that political leaders are trying to come together.

Reaching out to lawmakers, negotiating and looking for consensus suggests Bolsonaro is being forced to resort to the traditional political methods he had condemned during the election campaign.

Guedes on Friday reiterated his view that pension reform will be approved by the lower house before the end of June, while Maia said delay of a few weeks will be immaterial because the economic impact will be felt next year.

A split between Bolsonaro and Guedes over private retirement accounts appeared to emerge, however, after the president told journalists that he could drop the plan if it runs into opposition in Congress, the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper reported.

Guedes has been a vigorous defender of the idea.