In messages leaked by his now former minister of justice, Brazil’s president was explicit about his goal: He wanted the top federal police official to be a man he could call directly, with no bureaucratic hassles. With his children under investigation, Jair Bolsonaro was determined to find a loyalist for the post, someone who would share sensitive information freely and use the power of his office to block investigations that might embarrass the president. When his minister, Sérgio Moro, a former judge respected by many, balked and discussed Bolsonaro’s request in public, it set off a firestorm of condemnation and an official investigation sanctioned by the Supreme Federal Court, and unleashed a wave of speculation about impeachment.
Like his counterpart to the north, and like so many of the world’s current crop of populists, Bolsonaro came to office determined to appoint cronies willing to target political opponents and block investigations into friends, allies and family members. But while Bolsonaro’s appalling handling of the appointment to head the federal police shows uncanny parallels with the days of the Donald Trump-Jeff Sessions-James Comey melodrama, the analogy breaks down sooner than you might think.
Talk of President Trump’s impeachment started nearly as soon as he was inaugurated, but it was always clouded by the certainty that the Republican-controlled Senate would never seriously entertain removing the president. Trump came into office in firm control of one of America’s foremost political institutions, the GOP, and that gave his hold on power an assuredness that Bolsonaro can only dream of.
Although he had been a member of Brazil’s congress for decades, Bolsonaro came to the presidency with little organized party support. In his 15 months in office, he has managed to alienate what few congressional allies he once had. Worse, his popularity has caved to around 30 percent as his erratic governing style has worn thin on coronavirus-weary Brazilians.
And unlike in the United States, where removing a president via impeachment is talked about in apocalyptic terms, in Brazil, impeachment has become almost routine: Two of the five presidents elected since the country returned to democracy in 1985 have been impeached and removed. These days, impeachment in Brazil is transforming into just another check-and-balance a parliamentary majority can use against an unpopular president.
The similarities between Bolsonaro and other Western Hemisphere populists, not just Trump but also Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, have long been noted. But the differences are perhaps just as telling. Trump controls a major political party that rubber stamps his orders in one chamber of Congress. López Obrador retained strong approval ratings in his first 15 months in office. Chávez, for much of his time in power, had both compliant institutions and strong popular support. Bolsonaro has neither.
That matters, because populists don’t start out as unrestricted caudillos on Day One. To undermine a country’s institutions and take greater individual control, you need to chip away at democratic rules over time. It takes more than fire-breathing rhetoric to do that; it takes political skills, alliance-building chops and a bit of luck, too. To Brazil’s great fortune, Bolsonaro seems to have run out of all three.
Bolsonaro is heading into the scandal badly exposed. Instead of shoring up the pacts he would need to sustain the strongman rule he craves, he has alienated the politicians who should be his natural allies in the National Congress and in state and local governments. The party on whose ticket he ran, the badly misnamed Social Liberal Party, no longer supports him, and his efforts to build a new party have floundered. Worse yet, he’s largely lost the support of the public, with an increasing number of Brazilians supporting impeachment. It’s hard to be a populist when you’re not popular.
Which is why when Brazilians speculate about Bolsonaro’s impeachment, acquittal at trial is anything but a certainty. If anything, the presumption is that if Brazil’s National Congress begins the impeachment process, Bolsonaro will likely end up being removed.
The political drama over his justice minister’s resignation must not overshadow the dreadful damage Bolsonaro’s failed response to the coronavirus has done. The president failed to coordinate with states and turned on governors and mayors who tried to implement quarantine measures. He fired his popular health minister, who was attempting to manage the response seriously. He continues to go out in public and dismisses the most fundamental health warnings.
Bolsonaro doesn’t have the skill it would take to dismantle Brazilian democracy, thank goodness. The tragic corollary is that he also lacks the skill it would take to lead such a big and diverse country through a crisis of the magnitude of covid-19.
Brazil can’t face an impeachment crisis and a pandemic at the same time. In the short term, Brazil’s state and local governments will have to pick up the slack. But when the health threat dies down, Bolsonaro will be called to answer for his appalling misbehavior in this period.
Francisco Toro is chief content officer of the Group of 50 and a contributing columnist for Global Opinions. James Bosworth is the author of the Latin America Risk Report newsletter.