One of the world’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19 has ravaged Brazil, one of Latin America’s most viciously polarised countries. The mishandling of the pandemic has been so severe that in mid-2020 it looked likely to result in major political tumult or social unrest. At that point, two health ministers and one justice minister had departed the administration of the unabashed right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who had belittled the coronavirus’ dangers and botched the public health response. As the virus spread almost without impediment across Brazil’s vast territory, Bolsonaro battled with the Supreme Court and clashed with state governors while facing nearly ten impeachment requests in Congress as well as criminal investigations into his sons’ activities. The COVID-19 death toll passed 160,000 on 5 November and continues inexorably to climb. Yet in spite of feverish expectations of conflict between state institutions, both the president and the country appear to have docked in calmer waters.
By pulling away from the brink in battles with other parts of the Brazilian state, Bolsonaro helped stabilise a listing government without recourse to extreme measures. A massive emergency cash transfer program kept millions of people out of extreme poverty during the pandemic. Even at the height of daily infections, the president managed to hold the support of at least 20 per cent of the electorate, made up largely of his devoted base: security forces personnel, hardline conservatives, Christian evangelicals and segments of Brazil’s wealthy elite. Now, according to some polls, his popularity is higher than ever, while the number who say they dislike him has fallen.
But neither the political quietude nor the welfare program is likely to last much longer. Bolsonaro heads one of Latin America’s most fanatical governments, which appears to be poles apart from the U.S. president-elect, Joe Biden, on issues such as climate change and containment of COVID-19. He liberally deploys incendiary and offensive rhetoric and continues to revile parts of the Brazilian state, declaring that “the rascals’ time is over” and treating the political elite as a herd of cronies and traitors. With the economy set to contract by 5.8 per cent in 2020, according to most recent estimates, and with a presidential election due in 2022, political hostilities could resume and prove as acrimonious as ever.
“A Little Flu”
In June, many observers were convinced that Bolsonaro would not finish his term, unless he took exceptional measures to stay in power. The speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, had received several impeachment requests. From the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the president – who tested positive for the virus in July but recovered soon thereafter – downplayed the threat, stressing the need to keep the economy open and dismissing the illness as “a little flu” that the media had “exaggerated”. His stubborn faith in the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the illness, echoing the advice of his closest ideological ally, U.S. President Donald Trump, led him to sack one health minister and compelled another to resign. Their successor, General Eduardo Pazuello, is a senior military officer with limited experience in public health matters; the new minster has recently recovered from a bout of COVID-19 as well.
Arrayed against Bolsonaro’s laissez faire approach were most of the country’s 27 state governors, most members of Congress and the Supreme Court judges. Various heads of large regions had decided in March to impose lockdowns, as well as close airports and ports, which are federal properties – a decision Bolsonaro challenged, arguing that only the central government could make these moves. Called in to arbitrate this jurisdictional clash, the Supreme Court ruled in March and April that governors and mayors should play a leading role alongside the federal government in setting quarantine rules for their states or cities. Bolsonaro professed that the Court had “tied his hands” and made governors alone responsible for coping with the pandemic. He treated local lockdowns with scorn, undermining their effectiveness and making tough measures in any single locality nigh impossible. Data based on Google Trends shows that mobility fell below 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels for just two months and quickly returned to normal after that.
Protests against local lockdowns and in support of Bolsonaro simultaneously kicked off, setting in motion events that marked a progressive hardening of the government’s position. The protesters focused their ire not just at efforts to contain the virus, but also at the Supreme Court, which they regarded as an obstacle to the president’s conservative agenda. One protest on 20 April in Brasilia in front of army headquarters demanded that the Supreme Court and Congress close in favour of military dictatorship’s return (a small but vociferous constituency of Brazilians are nostalgic for the authoritarian regime that ran the country between 1964 and 1985, and oppose what they see as the Court’s campaign against the president). Bolsonaro addressed the rally, where he denounced the political establishment and defended “patriots” opposing curbs on their freedoms.
His presence at this and other Brasilia protests appeared to offer tacit support to some demonstrators’ demands for unbridled authoritarian rule, while also stirring up counter-protests. On the night of 13 June, people at a pro-Bolsonaro rally launched a barrage of fireworks at the Supreme Court building, prompting the magistrates to open an investigation into anti-democratic movements and arrest several of their leaders. Bolsonaro backers were infuriated. A simultaneous Supreme Court probe into the dissemination of fake news by an alleged “hate cabinet” close to the president and his sons further outraged their supporters.
Meanwhile, senior government and military officials expressed anger over what they perceived to be the Supreme Court’s meddlesome insolence, planting fears that a coup or military action in favour of Bolsonaro was in the offing. Since the beginning of his term, Bolsonaro has depended heavily on the military. Nearly half his cabinet is made up of active and retired officers, and more than 6,000 others are on the federal government payroll, many in key positions. On 22 May, retired General Augusto Heleno, the minister in charge of state security, condemned the Court and said further attempts to undermine the president could have “unforeseeable consequences”. Former Education Minister Abraham Weintraub suggested in a recorded cabinet meeting that he wished to “put these vagabonds all in jail, starting with the Supreme Court”. And in a 12 June interview with the Brazilian magazine Veja the government’s chief of staff, retired General Luiz Eduardo Ramos, said “it is offensive to think that the military would take part in a coup, but on the other side [the opposition] should não esticar a corda [literally, not stretch the rope]”.
A respected journalist from Piauí magazine appeared to confirm the danger to Brazilian democracy, revealing in a report that in May Bolsonaro had threatened to send troops into the Supreme Court in order to remove the sitting justices and install more pliable replacements. He allegedly made the threat after finding out that a Supreme Court judge, Celso de Mello, had consulted Chief Federal Prosecutor Augusto Aras about the possibility of seizing the president’s cell phone (and that of his son Carlos) as part of the probe into disinformation emanating from their innermost circle. The government has neither confirmed nor denied the Piauí article’s claims.
Pivoting to the Big Centre
Just as Brazil was bracing for turmoil, the president moved to quieten rather than crush his critics. Fears over numerous judicial enquiries and the rising COVID-19 death toll, as well as certain senior military figures’ aversion to coup talk, seemingly contributed to this change of heart. His first action was to tone down his vitriol and rabble rousing, including by discouraging protests in June and July, which were smaller than those of March and April. He avoided talking to the press for several weeks – aided by his quarantine while infected with COVID-19 – and curbed his more controversial utterances. He even signalled a rapprochement with the Supreme Court by opening direct communication with Chief Justice José Antonio Dias Toffoli. Early in October, Bolsonaro went to the chief justice’s house to eat pizza and watch a football match alongside Kássio Nunes, a candidate for a Supreme Court seat, and Senate President Davi Alcolumbre.
To stem growing criticism in Congress and shield himself from possible impeachment, Bolsonaro also began to woo parts of the political establishment that he had excoriated in the past. He forged a new alliance with an informal bloc known as the Centrão (the Big Centre), composed of roughly a dozen political parties with no fixed ideology. These parties work through patronage, and their support is generally conditional on receiving state jobs and other resources.
At the same time, the government enacted an emergency cash transfer program for poorer Brazilians affected by the pandemic. Support for this initiative began in March in Congress, which urged the government to help families threatened with losing their income due to lockdowns. In response, the Economy Ministry suggested an allowance of 200 reais per month ($37). A loose coalition of parties from left and right in Congress deemed this amount too low and raised it to 500 reais ($92). Just before the plan went to a vote, the government proposed another small increase, thereby seeking to prevent Congress from claiming all the credit for the scheme.
The welfare program has shored up the livelihoods of millions of families at a time when unemployment has risen to 14.4 per cent; not surprisingly, it has proven very popular. The program has covered a total of 65.3 million Brazilians, with each of them receiving monthly payments of 600 reais ($110) from April to August, and 300 reais ($55) for four months after that, lasting until the end of the year. In comparison, the celebrated cash transfer program enacted by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, Bolsa Família, covered 14.2 million families (reaching a total of nearly 40 million people), providing 188 reais ($35) per month on average.
Recent opinion polls underline that political moderation and emergency anti-poverty programs – policies that Bolsonaro has arrived at more by accident than design – have benefited the president, regardless of his failings in the area of public health. A poll conducted by the DataFolha institute on 13 August showed Bolsonaro’s approval rating hitting 37 per cent, reversing a consistent downward trend since his inauguration. A month later, the Ibope Institute reported that the president had achieved a record-high 40 per cent approval rating. Before this surge, Bolsonaro had been bleeding support in nearly all demographics and above all among the urban middle and upper classes; local elections on 15 November confirmed that he had lost much of his appeal in big cities. But his emergency cash program, meant to compensate for lockdowns that he himself opposes, appears to have rewarded him with a major boost among Brazil’s poor.
Is Stability the New Normal?
The pivot to pragmatism has placed Bolsonaro in a stronger position, so much so that pundits have begun discussing his chances in the 2022 election rather than his imminent fall or his entanglement in a possible coup. But the rosy outlook might soon pale. Within a few months, Brazil could reach a death toll of 200,000 from COVID-19 equivalent to nearly one of every thousand citizens. Even if Bolsonaro has distanced himself from hard-right protesters and the more conspicuous displays of authoritarianism, he still picks regular fights over pandemic-related issues and faces legal cases against him and his family that might prompt him to lash out once again. Polarisation comes atop rising levels of political violence: over 80 activists and candidates were killed in the months leading up to the November local elections, many by local gangs and paramilitary groups. Meanwhile, Brazil’s economic prospects remain hazy, and the government continues to court public outrage by weakening regulatory and supervisory institutions, such as courts, the Federal Police and environmental watchdogs.
Most controversially, Bolsonaro has doubled down on a profoundly anti-scientific approach to COVID-19. Despite Brazil’s world-class public vaccination program, he has discovered newfound support for anti-vaccine movements and opposed mandatory vaccination, contradicting a law that he himself signed in early February. His shift in belief coincides with the announcement of a joint vaccine venture with the Chinese company Sinovac by São Paulo Governor João Doria, who is likely to be one of Bolsonaro’s main rivals in the 2022 polls.
The legal perils facing the Bolsonaro family are also unlikely to diminish. Three of the president’s sons and a number of his relatives and close friends are under investigation. On 3 November, Rio de Janeiro prosecutors formally charged his eldest son, Flávio Bolsonaro, as well as his long-time aide, Fabrício Queiroz, with embezzlement, money laundering and involvement in organised crime. The charges relate to a racket known as a “split”, when a congressional deputy’s employees are illegally forced to give back part of their salaries to their boss.
It is already clear that the president does not take probes of his family lightly. In April, Justice and Public Security Minister Sergio Moro, the judge who led the ground-breaking Lava Jato investigation that from 2014 onward exposed illicit cash dealings at the heart of the former Workers’ Party government, resigned over just such a dispute. Moro denounced the president’s desire, expressed in a cabinet meeting, to replace the Federal Police director in Rio de Janeiro in charge of the enquiry into his son Flávio’s activities, as well as the director-general of the Federal Police, who had refused to comply with the president’s order. As soon as Moro left office, Bolsonaro managed to remove the director-general, but the Supreme Court blocked his suggested replacement.
A deep economic downturn is also sure to create major headaches for the government in 2021. The Brazilian public seems to have tolerated the slowdown as an inevitable effect of the pandemic. But the coming months promise little respite. The International Monetary Fund suggests that the economy could rebound by 2.8 per cent in 2021, but it is uncertain whether many of Brazil´s newly unemployed people will benefit. At the same time, public debt rose from 76 per cent of GDP in late 2019 to 88 per cent in August 2020, and is due to hit 95 per cent by December – a proportion that is daunting for any Latin American country (Argentina’s debt just before its bankruptcy and default in 2001 stood at 55 per cent). In response, the government has been gradually shortening its public debt maturity and increasing its yields.
So far, the government has not revealed how it will support hard-hit people should the emergency cash transfer program expire as planned at the end of the year. The Economy Ministry has presented three different proposals for replacing the program; all three would cut the monthly payments, as the ministry’s head Paulo Guedes says he is determined to reduce state spending. But the opposition, the media and even Bolsonaro himself have rejected these ideas. A severe recession with no continuation of emergency handouts would spur wider economic misery and erode the president’s rediscovered popularity. The effect might be felt not just in opinion polls but also in the alliance with the Centrão parties, whose fickleness is legendary. These parties have previously withdrawn support from two presidents facing impeachment: Fernando Collor in 1990 and Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
Should his popularity and coalition weaken, there are grounds for worry that Bolsonaro could once again become a threat to Brazil’s democratic stability. Fears of an “old-fashioned” breach of the constitutional order – a coup or an executive branch takeover of the Supreme Court or Congress – have eased since May. But subtler efforts to concentrate power by hollowing out various regulatory and audit institutions or recasting them for the government’s partisan goals have carried on regardless.
Environmental activists, for example, have criticised Bolsonaro’s decision to rely increasingly on the military, instead of existing civilian agencies, to combat deforestation. Amid historic forest fires in the Amazon, Pantanal wetlands and other major ecosystems, the government has systematically defunded the main environmental watchdog institutions (Ibama, Conama and ICMBio). According to the government’s proposed budget for 2021, ICMBio will suffer a 17 per cent cut and the environmental surveillance and control programs 25.4 per cent. Programs destined to prevent and control forest fires will lose 37.6 per cent of their budget compared to 2018, the year before Bolsonaro came to power. The armed forces have led two Green Brazil operations since the start of 2020, receiving more than twice the resources given to civilian agencies, yet they have failed to stop deforestation rates from hitting record highs.
A conspicuously political use of judicial power also appears ascendant. The prosecutors who handled the Lava Jato case in São Paulo resigned en masse, highlighting what they branded as the chief federal prosecutor’s dismantling of the landmark anti-corruption probe. While Lava Jato started as an enquiry into corruption at the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, focusing its attention on former President Lula and other senior figures in and around the Workers’ Party government, its more recent targets include centre-right parties and allies of the president. Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry was found to be compiling dossiers on 579 public employees and academics who have alleged links to anti-fascist movements or have openly criticised the government. The ministry has also filed pleas of habeas corpus in a bid to stop raids at the homes and offices of influential Bolsonaro supporters as part of the fake news enquiry.
Underneath a veneer of stability, Bolsonaro and his government continue to face huge health, economic and legal challenges in a political climate marked by recurrent threats of major disruption or unrest. Should he lose the emergency cash program, or the centrist parties’ backing, or for that matter his support from the U.S. government, Bolsonaro could be tempted to act upon his more authoritarian instincts. The calm in Brazil might still precede a storm.