Brazil: Presidential Lockdown?

By João Jarochinski Silva*

Bolsonaro Questioned

Bolsonaro addresses the press, May 2019/Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro faces mounting crises that could cut short his term in office and prolong Brazil’s multi-year political turmoil. The departure last month of two of his most widely respected cabinet members – Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Justice Minister Sérgio Moro – came on the heels of other bad news as Bolsonaro completed his 16th month in office.

  • Brazil’s GDP grew only 1.1 percent in 2019 despite the government’s promise that pension reform and other measures would make it almost double that. Most of the growth, moreover, came from the informal sector, not the entrepreneurial class that was expected to back Bolsonaro. Moreover, all predictions are that economic performance will decline significantly because of COVID-19.
  • A number of disputes have significantly eroded his political base. In his first year as president, he left the Liberal Social Party (PSL), which gave him a home and crucial help in his campaign and early days of government. Since November, he has been trying to create a new party, Aliança pelo Brasil, but it is unlikely that he will have it ready to participate in this year’s municipal elections (Brazil has 5,000 municipalities) or able to attract politicians, mainly deputies and senators, to form a consistent base in Congress. These likely failings will affect the party budget and its TV time in the national elections of 2022. Social media was central to Bolsonaro’s successful formula last year, but observers wonder if the magic will remain.

In this context, his decision to fire Mandetta and Moro’s decision to resign are particularly severe blows.

  • Bolsonaro and Mandetta had clashed over how to deal with the COVID‑19 crisis. Bolsonaro wanted to reopen some sectors of the economy, but the minister – with apparently strong public support – sought to follow the international protocols established for “flattening the curve” to protect the health system from collapse.
  • Moro disagreed with the President’s decision to fire the commander of the Federal Police when investigations appeared to be closing in on some activities of his sons. As lead ex-judge of the Lava Jato investigations, when Moro joined the administration, he brought credibility among some sectors to the Bolsonaro government’s stated commitment to anti-corruption. Moro’s speech on leaving the ministry suggested that he felt betrayed.

Bolsonaro’s strategy at this point appears to focus on reaching out to two constituencies that he considers reliable: Evangelical Christians and the military.

  • Two of his sons, while managing to keep their government positions, shifted to the Partido Republicano, which has strong links with the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and the second most-watched TV channel in Brazil, and other Evangelical groups. These groups are historically linked with the Centrão, a group of parties that do not have long-term political allegiances but support anyone who promotes their most immediate interests on issues such as federal administration and control over some areas with great budgetary power in the government.
  • Bolsonaro has also given the military a central political role in his government. Several government posts are held by retired and active-duty military officers, some of whom, like Moro, brought good levels of public approval to the administration. Some were seen as agents capable of taming Bolsonaro’s impulsiveness, even if evidence of success has been lacking. By lashing himself to military officers, however, Bolsonaro has tied the armed forces to his own fate and essentially coopted the officer corps into supporting him. In the event of an impeachment or other trauma, Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired general, and others would be held responsible for the government’s failure.

At this point, there is no good scenario for the Bolsonaro government – and COVID and other factors raise the specter of very bad scenarios in which courting the Centrão will be costly politically and financially. His alliances with the Centrão and the military also put at risk what little credibility he may have had remaining on anti-corruption after Moro’s defection. The military may not always want to be the guarantors of the government for public opinion.

  • The military will assume a technical role in dealing with the consequences of the coronavirus, including managing the impact of the economic decline such as a worsening of social tensions, but the results in terms of governance are unpredictable.
  • As Bolsonaro gropes for a way ahead, Vice President Mourão seems unlikely to willfully trip him up. Despite investing in a more thoughtful and responsible image than the president, he has not projected himself as an alternative. But the pressures for impeachment could mount steadily. Former Justice Minister Moro will be an important factor in any future scenario, but he will have to face angry supporters of Bolsonaro, mainly on social networks. A deep sense in the ranks of the other parties that he had a political agenda and lacked impartiality in the trials related to former President Lula by the Brazilian Supreme Court promises to continue the fireworks.

May 5, 2020

* João Jarochinski Silva is a CLALS fellow and professor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR).

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