Romeu Zema was running the family retailing group he inherited from his father when Brazil’s worst recession on record hit, forcing him to fire a third of the 7,500-strong workforce to survive. 

“In those two years, 2015 and 2016, I saw that it was no good being an efficient businessman and creating a good company if the country where you are is on the road to becoming the next Venezuela,” he recalls. “That was the main reason I went into politics.”

The following year, Zema accepted an invitation to run for governor of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second-most populous state. A political outsider, he racked up 60,000km criss-crossing a territory larger than France, campaigning in more than 200 towns and cities — and won the election easily.

Re-elected as governor in 2022, Zema, 59, has brought a no-nonsense, pro-business focus to the job, which he says has helped secure record levels of investment.

“In the past, there was a lot of ill will [towards business],” Zema says, referring to the leftwing administrations that preceded his. “The last [state] government attracted R$26bn ($5bn) while we, in five years and three months of government, have already drawn R$409bn ($77.8bn).”

One of the main areas of investment has been solar energy, with capacity growing from 500 megawatts in 2018 to 8 gigawatts this month — enough to power more than 5mn homes. On a bright day, Minas Gerais generates half as much electricity from the sun’s rays as is produced by Brazil’s Itaipu hydroelectric dam, the third-biggest in the world.

Mining remains a mainstay of the state’s economy, with Zema actively encouraging fresh projects, particularly in lithium, the metal crucial for making electric vehicle and mobile phone batteries. Critics argue that Zema pays too little attention to public services and his mining policies come at an environmental cost. A majority of the state’s voters seem happy, though: the most recent poll from Quaest put his approval rating at 62 per cent, with 31 per cent disapproving.

Zema also aims to tackle the R$165bn of debt the state owes the federal government — a burden from previous administrations which, he says, severely limits his ability to invest as much as he would like in highways and public services. A high rate of interest on the debt — consumer inflation plus 4 percentage points — makes it “unpayable”, he argues.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum to Zema and the Minas governor is openly critical of Lula’s economic policy. Growing federal deficits are a “time bomb”, Zema says, adding that the president’s team is “more concerned with rewriting history than with heading towards the future”.

That has not stopped him from meeting Lula in Minas this year, or from making a trip to Brasília to renegotiate the debt. One suggestion touted by finance minister Fernando Haddad is that the federal government would reduce the interest in return for states investing more in technical education.

Allies: Zema (left) remains close to former President Jair Bolsonaro © AFP via Getty Images

Another idea, proposed by Rodrigo Pacheco, federal senate president, is for Minas to hand over its stake in electricity group Cemig — which is an important producer to the national grid and has Minas as its largest shareholder — to the federal government, in return for debt pardons. Some observers say Lula is keen to help Minas ahead of the 2026 elections in the hope of winning back the state for his Workers’ party (PT), or for a political ally. Pacheco hails from Minas and is said to be keen to run for the governorship in 2026.

Minas is evenly split, politically, between left and right — but Zema, who is a member of the pro-business Partido Novo, campaigned next to former president Jair Bolsonaro in the latter’s unsuccessful attempt to win re-election in 2022. Despite Bolsonaro’s legal difficulties, including allegations that he was involved in attempts to organise a coup after losing the election, Zema remains close to the hard-right leader.

“Bolsonaro represents the right in Brazil very well,” Zema insists. “He had the merit of waking up the right, which had hardly existed until that moment . . . he will have a very big role to play in the municipal elections [this year] and in the 2026 presidential election.” But, with Bolsonaro out of the running for the next presidential race — he was banned last year from running for political office until 2030 for spreading misinformation about the electoral system during the 2022 poll — the right will seek a new candidate to run against the PT in two years’ time. Could it be Zema?

The governor insists not, saying there are plenty of other candidates: fellow conservative governors, such as Tarcísio de Freitas in São Paulo, Ratinho Júnior in Paraná or Ronaldo Caiado in Goiás. “I would prefer to support one of those names than be the name,” he says.

Not all are convinced. “Zema was elected on the premise that he would be more of a manager than a politician [but] after several years in office, it appears to be the opposite: his public policies are poor but he has proved to be a very skilled politician,” says Miguel Corrêa do Lago, executive director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies in Rio de Janeiro, citing the weakening of environmental safeguards despite two mining disasters in the state. “Maybe he does have national potential. There’s something in Zema which the electorate likes.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article