Bolsonaro Marches Brazil Toward A Political Crisis As Pandemic Explodes

Amid calls for impeachment and allegations of corruption, Jair Bolsonaro is banking on his most radical supporters to save his presidency.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro delivers a press conference in Brasilia, Brazil, on April 24.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro delivers a press conference in Brasilia, Brazil, on April 24.
EVARISTO SA via Getty Images

On April 16, far-right Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro sent his health minister packing, firing Luiz Henrique Mandetta because he had dared contradict the boss by taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. But that was just a warmup for the big show.

Eight days later, national justice minister Sergio Moro, one of the most popular and polarizing figures in Brazilian politics, abruptly resigned. He accused Bolsonaro of improper interference in the affairs of the Federal Police, Brazil’s equivalent of the FBI. Moro later accused Bolsonaro of meddling in the Federal Police force in Rio de Janeiro, where two of Bolsonaro’s sons are facing legal scrutiny from state police investigators.

The firings pushed Brazil to the brink of a political meltdown at the worst possible time. The country’s novel coronavirus outbreak has exploded: Brazil, where Bolsonaro repeated many of the United States’ worst mistakes in the early stages of the pandemic, has more than 125,000 confirmed cases and 8,500 deaths. State health systems are collapsing and Brazil’s already languid economy has cratered. Brazil added 10,500 new cases on Wednesday alone, but studies suggest its total number could be double the officially reported figures.

Bolsonaro is imploding, marching his country toward a political crisis of his own making.

“So what?” he told reporters last week, about the mounting death toll. Nightly protests, during which Brazilians bang pots and pans from their rooftops and balconies, have intensified. Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have remained at their lowest levels of his presidency. Governors who rode his coattails to election have abandoned him.

Brazil’s Supreme Court is investigating Moro’s claims of impropriety, and nearly half of Brazilians now support Bolsonaro’s impeachment ― raising questions about whether the president will fall before the halfway point of his first term despite facing virtually no coherent opposition movement from the parties to his left.

“The [Bolsonaro] government is a crisis generator,” said Thiago de Aragão, a partner at Arko Advice, a Brazilian political risk firm. “He’s had two major political self-made crises in the middle of one of the biggest crises of our generation.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro participates in a protest against the National Congress and the Supreme Court amidst the coronavirus pandemic at the Planalto Palace, May 3, in Brasilia.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro participates in a protest against the National Congress and the Supreme Court amidst the coronavirus pandemic at the Planalto Palace, May 3, in Brasilia.
Andressa Anholete via Getty Images

Bolsonaro has reacted by intensifying the rabidly conservative culture war that pushed him to the presidency and informed his early response to COVID-19, which he dismissed as a “tiny flu” driven to pandemic levels only by media hysteria.

He has lashed out at the World Health Organization, accusing it of promoting masturbation among children, and amped up the authoritarian rhetoric that has defined his 16 months in office. He has embraced small but radical weekly protests outside the presidential palace in Brasilia that feature calls to close the Supreme Court and Brazil’s Congress. During one rally last weekend, demonstrators attacked two members of the press.

The self-inflicted crises are hampering the government’s response to the bigger one: Mandetta’s replacement as health minister is “only more confused than Bolsonaro, if that’s possible,” said Bruno Boghossian, a political columnist at Folha de S.Paulo in Brazil.

The controversy around Moro’s allegations, meanwhile, means “there’s been less talking about the pandemic, and about the government’s lack of effort in fighting the pandemic,” Boghossian said. Congress and the government “are having to react to all these other episodes that are not related to the real crisis that we’re facing now. It’s consumed all these efforts that could be directed at the pandemic.”

“He’s a weak president fighting for his survival, with no true agenda aside from his survival.”

- Thomas Traumann

But despite the increasing support for impeachment, Bolsonaro’s presidency isn’t likely to collapse soon. He still enjoys support from a third of Brazilians, many of whom aren’t likely to abandon him now, or ever. And Moro’s initial deposition last weekend revealed “little news” that may support a criminal probe of Bolsonaro, Folha reported.

Rather, this may be the dawn of a new stage of his presidency, one that will be defined almost exclusively by his most radical and reliable supporters, said Thomas Traumann, who served as communications minister in ex-President Dilma Rousseff’s government.

“There’s a shift from the Bolsonaro government from 2019 to the one we’re seeing now,” Traumann said. “It’s a bunker mentality ― ‘us against everyone else.’ He’s with his loyal and faithful people, and in the meantime, he has cut his relations with almost all governors, he has criticized and fought with Congress and the Supreme Court. ... He’s a weak president fighting for his survival, with no true agenda aside from his survival.”

That us-versus-them mentality has always played a significant role in Bolsonaro’s approach to politics. His 2018 campaign was a concerted effort to target classes of Brazilians he deemed unworthy of inhabiting the country, or at least enjoying any semblance of human rights or democratic acceptance Brazil might have to offer LGBTQ people, Black Brazilians, women and members of the left, whom he labeled importers of communist ideology who would have to leave or go to jail under his government.

But in an effort to win the election, Bolsonaro also embraced liberal economics and anti-corruption — causes most popular among Brazil’s elites and moderates.

Mandetta and Moro were key symbols of that effort, even after the election. The former was a center-right congressman and veteran of the sort of parties whose members and supporters largely backed Bolsonaro in a runoff election against his opponent from the leftist Workers’ Party. Among those less skeptical of Bolsonaro, Mandetta’s ascent into the government was perhaps a sign that despite his rhetoric, Bolsonaro would show at least some willingness to play the parlor games of Brasilia, where coalition-building is required to accomplish anything.

Few figures in Brazilian politics were as instrumental to Bolsonaro’s rise as Moro, a former judge who — unwittingly or otherwise — paved the right-winger’s path to the presidency. Moro was the force behind Operation Car Wash, the political corruption probe that soured Brazilians on their political class as it implicated hundreds of lawmakers, none more notable than former Workers’ Party President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaro’s main rival in the 2018 elections.

Popular across Brazil, Moro’s decision to join the government lent Bolsonaro a veneer of credibility, especially among the urban and educated elite, that didn’t fade even after The Intercept Brazil revealed widespread improprieties within Moro’s own investigation into da Silva.

But no matter how crucial they saw themselves to Bolsonaro, men like Moro and Mandetta were always outsiders inside his government.

Bolsonaro’s true constituency is his base of military hardliners and radical right-wing conservatives, most of whom see Bolsonaro, true to his middle name Messias, as a literal savior sent to deliver Brazil from the evils of perceived communist infiltration. Their agenda is both conservative and conspiratorial: In their eyes, every critic of Bolsonaro, from environmentalists to the media, is part of a plot to destroy him and them too.

Whenever Bolsonaro feels threatened, he returns to that well for another drink. He has shown little willingness to work with Congress, and the most influential of his advisers and cabinet members, with few exceptions, are either generals, evangelical conservatives or “anti-globalist” reactionaries — a wing that includes his son Eduardo, a member of Congress and acolyte of Steve Bannon. Bolsonaro has also increasingly leaned on the military men in his cabinet during the crises, and tried to insinuate that he would have the armed forces’ support for drastic actions against Congress or the Supreme Court ― although military leaders said otherwise in a statement rebuking him.

The threats, real or imagined, have mounted during the pandemic. Mandetta was one: His message that COVID-19 posed significant risks to Brazil and could overwhelm its state health systems undermined Bolsonaro’s attempts to paint it as no big deal. His backing of social distancing measures impaired Bolsonaro’s attempts to place the blame for any economic problems caused by the pandemic on governors who acted more aggressively. (Bolsonaro has staked his presidency on a robust economic recovery from the brutal recession that began under Rousseff in 2014, but Brazil’s economy is now projected to shrink at least 5% this year.)

Brazilian Justice Minister Sergio Moro speaks at a press conference where he abruptly resigned his post on April 24.
Brazilian Justice Minister Sergio Moro speaks at a press conference where he abruptly resigned his post on April 24.
EVARISTO SA via Getty Images

Moro eventually posed another. His sudden decision to resign followed Bolsonaro’s attempts to replace the head of the Federal Police with a sympathetic ally, a move Moro opposed and that he said represented improper interference into his ministry. The allegations fueled speculation that Bolsonaro was hoping to protect his family: His son Carlos, a Rio de Janeiro lawmaker, is the subject of an investigation into accusations that he fomented social media misinformation campaigns. His son Flavio, a senator, is facing embezzlement accusations. (Both have denied wrongdoing.)

“The reason he made a point to sack Moro now is because investigations are getting closer and closer to his family,” said Matias Spektor, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “The corruption scandals that many people assumed were there are becoming clearer by the day.”

Mandetta seemed resigned to his fate by the time his pink slip came. Moro, on the other hand, seemed dumbfounded that Bolsonaro would cross him. Both seem to have let naiveté, sheer ambition or a combination of the two blind them to the reality of the man they chose to serve ― and it’s hard not to believe Mandetta and Moro saw their respective moments as opportunities to salvage their reputations before Bolsonaro sank further.

“I don’t think he fired me. He fired science,” Mandetta told The Washington Post last week, about a man who believes climate change is a conspiracy and accused NGOs of setting a record outbreak of fires in the Amazon rainforest last year while Mandetta was in his government.

“Fighting corruption is not a government priority,” Moro said in an interview with Brazil’s Veja, a striking admission that he did not realize Bolsonaro’s only interest in corruption was its potency as a political tool during the election, or that the president appointed at least seven cabinet members who had faced corruption charges.

“People believed that once he was president he would behave differently, but that’s not the way politicians work,” Traumann said. “A guy who gets 57 million votes is not going to say, ‘Now I’m going to change.’”

The Centrão, an influential cadre of centrist lawmakers, is circling around Bolsonaro, hoping to win favorable positions in his government or policies they prefer, The New York Times reported last week. And Bolsonaro has made attempts to reach out to centrist lawmakers in an effort to shore up allies in Congress, de Aragão said.

But for now, Bolsonaro may still have little incentive to change.

His support among elites has dwindled, but modest gains among poor Brazilians who’ve benefited from his meager stimulus efforts have kept his approval rating above 30%. And as long as he can count on a significant bloc of voters who won’t abandon him no matter what, he may maintain enough support to stave off impeachment efforts, at least for now. His presidency is weakened ― but a wounded Bolsonaro who stakes his survival solely on his radical supporters may be even more dangerous to the Brazilians most vulnerable to the pandemic, and to his presidency.

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