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“A Little Flu” Could Be Fatal for Jair Bolsonaro

Brazil’s fragile health care system and densely populated cities threaten to turn the COVID-19 outbreak into a full-scale social collapse. President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the pandemic as a “little flu” is feeding dissent even among his allies — threatening to hasten the far-right leader’s downfall.

Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, takes off his protective mask to speak to journalists during a press conference about outbreak of the coronavirus at the Planalto Palace on March 20, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. Andressa Anholete / Getty

March 2020 could go down as the month in which the tide finally turned against Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. Recent weeks have seen noisy “panelaços” (pot-banging protests) against Bolsonaro across major cities. The last time the echoes of banging pots were regularly heard was in 2016, when they were directed against then-president Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT). She was removed that August after both Brazil’s Congress and Senate, confident that public opinion was behind them, voted to impeach her on flimsy charges of manipulating public accounts. Her successor, interim president Michel Temer, was also the object of panelaços and barely limped through the rest of Rousseff’s term.

However, such protests are hardly a scientific gauge of public opinion — they may simply represent a radicalization of segments of the population, concentrated in certain areas. The limited polling conducted since the coronavirus pandemic reached Brazil is ambiguous. On March 19, small pollster Atlas Político found that 64 percent disapproved of Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic and that 45 percent favored his impeachment — exactly tied with those opposed. However, 26 percent still considered his government to be “good” or “great” and 33 percent “average,” compared to 41 percent regarding it as “bad” or “terrible.” This showed almost no change from results a month earlier. In a poll published by Brazil’s leading polling firm Datafolha on March 23, focused specifically on the pandemic, 35 percent approved of Bolsonaro’s response, 33 percent disapproved, and 26 percent considered it “average.” However, there was widespread concern about the pandemic and greater disapproval of particular pronouncements made by the President. We will have to wait for further evidence over coming weeks to assess whether Bolsonaro’s popular support has genuinely begun to fracture.

It is not hard to see why it would have. Bolsonaro’s behavior in response to the emerging pandemic has ranged from clownish to sociopathic. When news of the spread of coronavirus first hit the headlines in early March, he dismissed it as a “fantasy.” However, as the crisis quickly escalated in Europe and members of his own team contracted the virus (and perhaps he himself, though he claims otherwise), total denial became a step too far even for Bolsonaro. Instead, he acknowledged it as a genuine problem, and briefly appeared to accept the growing consensus around the need for stringent social distancing measures. However, he then U-turned in spectacular fashion. In a special announcement to the nation on March 24, he dismissed the virus as a “gripezinha” (mild flu) only dangerous to the elderly. Subsequently, he has gone further, explicitly opposing restrictions imposed by state governors and the recommendations of his own health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, by telling people to return to work. In addition to provoking a crisis of authority in the midst of a public health emergency, Bolsonaro almost certainly committed an impeachable offence when, earlier in the month, he encouraged and then physically embraced supporters at a protest against the congress and supreme court. Not only did this contravene the constitution, but also health ministry guidelines against large gatherings.

These grim theatrics have all taken place against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating economic scenario. The value of the Brazilian real has plummeted to record lows against the dollar and the stock market has been in free fall. Now with the public health crisis looming, recession is fast approaching and Bolsonaro’s ultraliberal economics minister Paulo Guedes has failed to inspire confidence that he has the will or ideas to address it. After a long delay, on March 16 he finally revealed a package of measures to address the crisis, including extra money for the health system, tax delays and credit lines for businesses, and benefits for workers. While amounting to a headline figure of close to 150 billion reais (about $30 billion), most of this is earmarked money that is simply being brought forward. In any case, compared to the unprecedented measures being rolled out by states across the world to protect businesses and households from a sustained period of little or no economic activity, it looks woefully inadequate. On March 23, Bolsonaro presented a presidential decree that would allow businesses to suspend employee contracts for a period of up to four months without pay. He revoked the article later the same day following widespread outrage. Nonetheless, it signals the determination of the government to ensure the costs of the coming recession are primarily borne by workers and the poor.

A Fraying Alliance

The panelaços and signs of growing disapproval with the president appear to represent a more general fraying of the political alliance and electoral coalition that brought him to power. A diverse array of far-right groupings gathered around Bolsonaro in 2018, including law-and-order hard-liners, religious fundamentalists, and followers of US-based conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed philosopher, Olavo de Carvalho. Their primary vehicle was the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which, propelled by Bolsonaro’s popularity, became the second biggest party in Congress, after the PT, with over fifty deputies. However, he initially also attracted more moderate figures to his cause, both within the PSL and from the traditional right-wing Democratas (DEM) party, some of whom assumed key positions in his government. The affinity even extended to the São Paulo Governor, João Doria, of the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), who modeled his own election campaign on Bolsonaro’s, and to Judge Sérgio Moro, the face of the Lava Jato corruption investigations, who became Bolsonaro’s Justice and Security Minister.

Finally, there is the military. No fewer than eight of Bolsonaro’s twenty-two ministers are serving or retired military officers, including his vice president, retired general Hamilton Mourão. The political motivations and tensions within Brazil’s military hierarchy are a black box and it is difficult to collectively designate the militares in government as belonging to either the extreme or moderate camp of the Bolsonaro alliance. While they may tend towards the hard-line security views of the punitive populists, publicly they favor an institutional form of public order based on discipline and respect for hierarchy, rather than celebrating excessive police violence, vigilante justice, or the arming of ordinary citizens. While there may be some sympathy for the cry of “Intervenção já!” (“Military intervention now!”) heard among some of Bolsonaro’s supporters, they currently appear more interested in influencing and attempting to guide Brazilian democracy than curtailing it (a distinction they would not view as problematic). In other words, they combine the violent and authoritarian instincts of the extremists, with the moderates’ self-perception of professionalism and restraint.

While the various far-right tendencies, the militares, Guedes, and Moro remain in the Bolsonaro camp for now, the wider alliance is clearly fraying. Bolsonaro has split from the PSL and is seeking to form a new party that is entirely loyal to him. This has meant losing the support of several prominent figures in Congress. Ex-allies from the PSL, such as Alexandre Frota (now with the PSDB) and Janaína Paschoal, have been among the president’s fiercest critics in recent months. Meanwhile, the governors of major states who allied with Bolsonaro during the election, such as João Doria (São Paulo) and Wilson Witzel (Rio de Janeiro), have become his bitter enemies. Perhaps most significantly, Rodrigo Maia of DEM, the Speaker of the Lower House, has emerged as key counterweight to Bolsonaro, showing competence and an ability to articulate a fragmented and unruly Congress — skills the president sorely lacks. Some of the key forces that brought Bolsonaro to power and held his government together during his first year in office are breaking away. They appear to be reassembling into a more moderate, center-right bloc that intends to approach the coming crisis in a very different, and far more serious way to the president.

A similar process may be underway in terms of Bolsonaro’s popular support. Put in very simplified terms, we can understand Bolsonaro’s 2018 electoral coalition as comprising three broad groups. The first are the “Bolsonaristas,” accounting for perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the electorate (Bolsonaro’s polling level for much of 2017 and 2018, until it rose during the election campaign itself). They are typically middle or lower-middle class voters who support all or most of Bolsonaro’s platform, in particular his penal populism, virulent anti-leftism, misogyny, homophobia, and/or dictatorship nostalgia. Then there are the “antipetistas.” This is a smaller, but also wealthier and more influential group, which is primarily motivated by opposition to the PT and enthusiasm for politically targeted — against the Left — corruption investigations and neoliberal economic reforms. They are typically uninterested in Bolsonaro’s endless culture wars and often find his behavior distasteful, but when he emerged as the candidate most likely to defeat the PT they did not hesitate to throw their support behind him. The final group are the “antipolíticos,” the largest and poorest of the three. These voters have low levels of trust in politicians and see little distinction between the mainstream parties. While many are disaffected former PT voters, they often harbor lingering sympathies for former-president Lula and do not see the PT as any worse than the rest. Bolsonaro appealed to them in 2018 largely because he seemed like something new, rather than out of active enthusiasm for his program.

The decline in support for Bolsonaro is likely to have come from growing disenchantment among both antipetistas and antipolíticos — at this stage, perhaps more from the former than the latter. As they are likely to have been paying closer attention to the emerging crisis than most of the population and tend to value competence and seriousness as important political attributes, the antipetistas in particular are horrified by the president’s recent antics. Although less engaged politically, the mood among antipolíticos may also be shifting as they begin to feel the effects of the economic downturn. Bolsonaro may have temporarily bought some time with this group by downplaying the risks of coronavirus and telling them they can return to work. As many are informal workers who will be unable to sustain long periods of social distancing without government support, this may initially come as a relief. However, as virus spreads over coming weeks and household budgets are squeezed ever further, an eventual reckoning seems almost inevitable. If so, the president’s support could soon become confined to a rump of die-hard Bolsonaristas.

Realignments

Despite current trends, however, we should be cautious about assuming the far-right bloc, or even Bolsonaro himself, will be destroyed by the coming crisis. They have undoubtedly been ambushed by the pandemic. The nature and scale of the problem have blunted Bolsonaro’s usual tactics of dismissing inconvenient facts as “fake news” and shifting blame for governance failures onto political opponents and scapegoats, making his behavior appear even more erratic than it is normally. Bolsonaro currently comes across as a deeply unserious person in the midst of an unprecedented national crisis — a combination that is unlikely to be looked upon kindly by the public. As the crisis deepens, there may be genuine, widespread hankering for the kind of “competent governance” that the likes of Maia, Doria, and Mandetta seem to offer. This would represent a major turnaround from the pattern of recent years, as political advantage shifts away from iconoclastic “outsiders” to those who can offer some semblance of being in control. (The chameleon-like Doria has sought to play both roles, of course).

However, the possibility of such a realignment taking place also depends on other factors which further complicate the picture. First is the question of what mechanisms could be used against Bolsonaro. A petition for impeachment has already been submitted by members of the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and been signed by close to a million people. Meanwhile, parties across Brazil’s notoriously fragmented left, including the PT, have signed a joint letter calling on Bolsonaro to resign and outlining their own proposals for fighting the spread of COVID-19. While such unity of purpose on Brazil’s Left is encouraging, it is not clear how far this unity extends strategically — especially where the PT is concerned. Having recently been the victim of a politically motivated impeachment, the party is naturally cautious about further undermining democratic process by pursuing immediate impeachment proceedings, no matter how legitimate the case against Bolsonaro. There are also practical reasons. Since its fall from power, the PT has struggled to articulate a clear political agenda, instead becoming overly reliant on Lula’s enduring personal popularity. Under current circumstances, they may believe that they would not be the primary beneficiaries of Bolsonaro’s potential downfall. Even if they were, it is not yet clear how they would navigate the current crisis without also being swallowed up by it.

The center-right, meanwhile, have the opposite concern. They have spent the last six years treating the PT itself like a pandemic virus that was destroying Brazil with corruption and socialism. These feverish delusions about the unique evilness of the PT led them first to support an antidemocratic impeachment and then to align with a far-right proto-authoritarian. While their fire is currently focused on Bolsonaro, there is little evidence they would not still view him as the “lesser of two evils” if forced to make the choice again. If the PT began to grow in the context of the crisis — for example, winning back large numbers of antipolíticos by pushing the government to increase emergency health care spending and support for low-income workers — the center-right could easily be frightened back into a far-right alliance. With the exception of Frota and Paschoal, who support impeachment (Frota has drafted his own separate impeachment request), most of those in the emergent center-right bloc appear to be adopting a strategy of “political quarantine” towards the president. The hope is that by allowing Bolsonaro to lose popularity and become increasingly isolated, and driving the response to the pandemic from Congress, key ministries and state governments, they can gain in strength and credibility without causing further instability by rising to Bolsonaro’s provocations and escalating their conflict with him.

The Coming Storm

The weakening of the far-right bloc in the first months of 2020 is a positive development in the context of a greater tragedy, but it is also just a momentary snapshot in a fast-moving situation that may eventually take a very different turn. As in other countries that the pandemic has hit, and despite the relatively early imposition of social-distancing measures by state governments in affected regions, the real impacts have not yet truly been felt by most Brazilians. When they are, economic distress, anger, and fear will grow rapidly.

While governments in Europe and North America have failed to contain the spread of the disease, it is important to acknowledge the even greater vulnerability that a country like Brazil faces. Although it has a large public health care system, this struggles to meet demand even in normal times and has been stretched by extreme austerity measures imposed in recent years. Meanwhile, Brazil has larger numbers of poor and informal workers who will require major support if social distancing is to be remotely feasible. Then there is the country’s long history of authoritarian rule, which means the potential granting of special government powers for the duration of the crisis is a far more ominous prospect than it is in established democracies. Although he continues to downplay the gravity of the situation, Bolsonaro has already commissioned a report into the possibility of declaring a state of exception. Such a move would need to be passed by Congress and would be subject to renewal by congressional vote every thirty days. Nonetheless, it signals that the President is already preparing a shift from denial and diversion about the pandemic to attempting to exploit it for authoritarian ends.

While Bolsonaro might currently be losing support, events could still allow him to turn things around. Bolsonaro rode to electoral victory on a wave of anger that he was successfully able to direct towards various folk devils — from the PT to the “fake news media,” alleged proponents of “gender ideology,” to common criminals. Since assuming the presidency, he has remained in campaign mode, rarely missing an opportunity to stoke these conflicts. At first glance, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to offer fewer opportunities for Bolsonaro to pursue his culture war. The Left will have little direct influence over how the crisis is managed and, under conditions of social distancing, cannot even take to the streets. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a federal deputy, floated a xenophobic balloon last week, blaming the Chinese government for the pandemic, while Brazil closed its border preemptively with Venezuela in a move clearly motivated by partisan politics rather than national security. However, the fueling of geopolitical tensions is unlikely to rally much popular support. China is Brazil’s main trading partner and maintaining good relations will be vital to minimizing the fallout of the crisis. Although Venezuela has become a bogeyman for Brazil’s mainstream media and the middle classes, it is far from the minds of most Brazilians and will not divert attention from a domestic crisis of this scale (especially as borders have now been closed across the continent).

Picking ideological and geopolitical fights will not bring alienated former supporters back into the fold. On the other hand, effectively exploiting Brazil’s deep and enduring social conflicts may be more successful in this regard. The repercussions of the pandemic on a highly unequal and violent society like Brazil’s are yet to be seen, but there are some early signs of how it could unfold. Last week, prisoners rioted in several prisons across São Paulo state when they were denied their day-release privileges due to heightened restrictions, with 1,350 escaping. Brazil’s most powerful drug-trafficking factions are based in the country’s prisons, with some able to carry out large, coordinated riots. It is not yet clear how they will respond to fear of infection in overcrowded cells, or to loss of day-release and visiting rights, but widespread violence in the prison system is a very real prospect. This could be the immediate trigger for government attempts to seek special powers, and would be likely to garner majority support in Congress and the wider population.

Then there are the effects that will be more immediately felt in the urban areas where much of Brazil’s population is concentrated. The densely populated favelas and urban peripheries that are present in all large Brazilian cities provide a perfect storm of conditions to favor the spread of COVID-19. Often living in overcrowded homes with inadequate sanitary conditions, and with limited access to public health centers and hospitals, residents of these areas will be particularly vulnerable to contracting and suffering complications from the virus. Given that many work precarious, low-paid jobs, often in distant areas of the city, they will also inevitably help to spread it if there is not huge government assistance to help them maintain social distancing. While coronavirus arrived in Brazil on the airplanes of diplomats and the internationally mobile middle and upper classes — not least Bolsonaro’s own team — it could quickly start to be seen as primarily emanating from the favelas. These areas are already collectively blamed for public anxieties about urban insecurity, often leading to extraordinary police and military interventions. It is not a great leap to imagine fear of the spread of disease provoking similar measures. (As Jeff Garmany and I discussed in a recent article, poor urban populations in Brazil have long been considered sources of infection to the wider city, justifying long histories of “hygienization” to coercively displace or contain them). In a recent interview with BBC Brasil, favela leader Gilson Rodrigues speculated that, “the number of cases in the favelas will grow so much that they will lock the favelas down, send the army in, no-one leaves and no-one enters.”

Bracing for Impact

As Rodrigues notes, any radicalization of the far-right bloc around proposals for authoritarian measures against prisoners or the urban poor would certainly involve the military. What is not clear at present is whether they would prefer to do so in alliance with Bolsonaro or without him, and how far they would be willing to go in suspending normal democratic process. On the campaign trail in 2018, Vice President Mourão outflanked even Bolsonaro when he explicitly posited the possibility of enacting an “auto-golpe” (a coup by a sitting government). However, once in power he changed his tone, appearing as one of the saner and more democratic voices in the government. The suspicion is that as the military began to lose popularity due to its association with Bolsonaro, a prohibition was placed on controversial pronouncements by its representatives in government. The thinking was that this would allow it to maintain political influence without losing the confidence of the population. The response to the pandemic on the ground may provide the military with a unique opportunity to gain prominence in the government and popularity in the country simultaneously. Under conditions of crisis and possible social unrest, a new far-right bloc centered on the military could gain the upper hand, with or without Bolsonaro.

Such a scenario raises grave questions for civilian politicians across the political spectrum, but perhaps especially for the Left. The first question it must address is whether pursuing immediate impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro is likely to lead to the best outcome. Those in favor make the no doubt correct argument that leaving Bolsonaro in place undermines the response to the coronavirus pandemic itself and could result in many thousands of excess deaths. However, there is also the risk that seeking to remove him prematurely could backfire if public opinion and his remaining political allies have not definitively turned against him. Both factors matter.

Dilma still retained some support in the country when she was impeached, but it had reached low enough levels that opportunistic allies in Congress felt emboldened to move against her. Despite having no popular support, Temer clung on by retaining the backing of elites who supported his economic reforms and feared facing corruption charges if he fell. Popular and/or elite support for Bolsonaro could prove to be more resilient than it currently appears — allowing him to stall an impeachment process, if not avoid it altogether. Perhaps even more important, the far-right bloc does not need Bolsonaro to radicalize and gain the ascendency as the crisis deepens. A more “competent” figure like Mourão could potentially rebuild his coalition and place it on a more secure footing. He would be no less likely than Bolsonaro to seek emergency powers from Congress — but would be more likely to have them granted.

In the short term, the “political quarantine” of Bolsonaro remains the best option, but the Left must be prepared to move decisively as soon as it is clear that he is sufficiently weakened to go on the attack. In the meantime — as the joint letter has already begun to outline — it must clearly explain how it would manage the crisis differently. This means pressuring for a huge financial rescue package that will prioritize workers and the poor, helping them to achieve social distancing and access health care when they need it. It also means mobilizing grassroots support to assist vulnerable populations in facing the pandemic, in particular in the populous favelas and peripheries. At some point in the near future, however, it may also be necessary to oppose government attempts to grab emergency powers (at least on grounds of security rather than public health), and eventually to mobilize against the threat of generalized state violence. In other words, the Left must be prepared for the possibility that the public health emergency could rapidly shift onto the terrain of public order, at which point authoritarian undercurrents in Brazil could be unleashed. Such a shift could revive the far-right bloc both within the political class and in wider society, whether it is led by Bolsonaro or the militares.

The storm is coming. The challenge now is to prevent a dual public health and economic crisis becoming a full-blown humanitarian crisis, and, eventually, a democratic one.