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1 May 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 2:27pm

How coronavirus could unseat Jair Bolsonaro

Brazil's president is wasting time fighting his own cabinet, rather than controlling a huge public health crisis.

By Nick Burns

Jair Bolsonaro’s official residence is infested with rats. Starved of their scraps by social distancing measures to combat coronavirus, a plague of rodents has descended upon the entrance to the Planalto Palace in Brasília, scaling journalists’ legs and frightening visitors who have come to take a photo with Bolsonaro at one of his daily meetings with the media and supporters.

The rats are the least of his worries. Bolsonaro is facing a dire public health crisis in the form of South America’s largest outbreak of Covid-19, with an infection curve that is rising when those in many other countries seem to be levelling off. But rather than focus his energies on combating the virus, Bolsonaro has spent much of his time playing the role of exterminator in his own cabinet, sacking or driving away ministers he suspects of disloyalty.

First came a series of clashes with his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, over lockdown measures. After coronavirus was first detected in Brazil in late February, Mandetta implored Brazilians to follow World Health Organisation quarantine guidelines, while Bolsonaro dismissed the severity of the virus, appearing on national television on 24 March to attack state governors who took it upon themselves to institute lockdowns.

Mandetta drew comparisons to Anthony Fauci, Donald Trump’s prominent public health adviser, infectious disease specialist and head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But unlike Fauci, Mandetta is a politician and if his support for stricter measures was a genuine attempt to slow contagion, he also seemed to be thinking of his own political career. His dismissal, which finally came in mid-April, could not have come as an unwelcome surprise, nor was he a key figure in the cabinet before the outbreak.

Much more serious for Bolsonaro was the loss of Sérgio Moro, his celebrity “super-minister” of justice. Moro was, and remains, a hero to conservative Brazilians for his hard-line approach in leading a series of corruption investigations in 2014 that brought down former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the left-wing Workers’ Party. His appointment to Bolsonaro’s cabinet was a key moment: it secured Bolsonaro’s anti-corruption, anti-left-wing base, and also shored up establishment support for what had begun as a fringe candidacy.

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But on 24 April, the justice minister quit in protest against Bolsonaro’s decision to swap out the director of Brazil’s federal police Maurício Valeixo with a loyalist, Alexandre Ramagem. Moro claimed that Bolsonaro wanted the change in order to halt investigations that might hurt his political allies and in order to protect his family from scandal: Bolsonaro’s son Carlos is the subject of an ongoing federal police investigation into a criminal “fake news” dissemination scheme that has targeted members of the supreme court.

That same evening, Bolsonaro went on national television, standing in front a bewildered-looking line-up of cabinet members – including economy minister Paulo Guedes, the only one wearing a mask, and apparently shoeless – to rebut Moro’s accusations and complain that his ex-minister’s loyalty lay “with his ego, and not with Brazil”.

The loss of his star minister in such a fashion has many wondering whether Bolsonaro’s luck has finally run out. All eyes are now on Paulo Guedes, the second of Bolsonaro’s two “super-ministers”. Guedes was originally brought on to cut Brazil’s public spending and spearhead privatisations of state-owned firms, and his addition to Bolsonaro’s campaign helped rally international investors and some establishment forces in Brazil. But as countries around the world adopt stimulus measures to combat the economic effects of the virus, Guedes’ brand of fiscal discipline would seem to ill fit the demands of the moment.

The generals who form the most influential faction within Bolsonaro’s cabinet never liked Guedes’ privatisation plans. Brazil’s armed forces have long been suspected by international investors of having statist predilections, and it is little wonder why – they have ties to many of the state enterprises Guedes wants to sell off.

Guedes had supported, apparently against the inclinations of the generals, a deal for Boeing to buy a portion of Embraer, a Brazilian plane maker part-owned by the government. The deal was recently cancelled in light of the grim prospects for the aviation industry caused by the virus, dashing the economy minister’s hopes.  

Moro and Guedes were supposed to lead Bolsonaro’s government, and Guedes’ departure – if or, as seems more likely, when it comes – will be sure to rattle the investors who had such high hopes for the effect his policies would have on Brazilian growth. It would also would alter the dynamics within Bolsonaro’s cabinet, leaving only the generals and the “ideological wing” of hard-core social conservatives. But it may not be fatal.

The last time Brazil entered a recession – after a 2014 crash in global commodity prices, under President Dilma Rousseff’s watch – the result was mass protest and impeachment. But Rousseff made the mistake of alienating Congress and her own left-wing base by favouring austerity measures to combat the economic crisis.

Since the beginning of April, the proportion of Brazilians who want Bolsonaro to resign has gone up by 9 percentage points, to 46 per cent – but around a third of Brazilians remain staunch supporters of the president. Bolsonaro’s fate will depend on his ability to keep hold of this base, and to prevent Congress from turning on him. The kingmaker in Congress is the powerful archipelago of political parties known as the Centrão or “Big Centre”. These parties are less ideologically centrist than they are slow-moving patronage networks, and they will demand spoils from Bolsonaro in the form of governmental appointments in exchange for their continued goodwill.

As it was for Rousseff before him, Bolsonaro’s vice-president is the sword of Damocles hanging over him. Hamilton Mourão, a retired general, is regarded as a moderate figure – but unlike Rousseff’s treacherous second-in-command, Michel Temer, Mourão is not a Brasília insider. Congress may be accordingly less inclined to clear his way to the throne. Power-brokers in Congress and outside it will be carefully weighing the risk of conducting an impeachment amid a pandemic against the uncertain benefits of a Mourão government.

Bolsonaro will have to tread carefully over the next few months, and he will be praying the virus and its economic fallout spares Brazil the worst, if for no other reason than his mandate is at stake, as well as the nation’s health. Any truly damning revelations as to why he was willing to risk Moro’s departure by switching police chiefs will, of course, worsen his odds. But it seems quite possible he will make it to the end of his term in 2023 – much reduced and in disarray.

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain