Will President Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic end his grip on power?


It’s hard not to hate Brazilian President Bolsonaro. A visceral opponent of abortion and drug liberalization, he has rolled back protections for indigenous groups and the Amazon rainforest for which he is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. His comments about women and the LGTBQ+ community do not bear repeating. 

All of this is well known. Yet until quite recently the President’s position seemed secure, in part because of his fairly positive domestic image. In a country dogged by years of corruption revealed by the Lavo Jato (Car Wash) investigation, the former paratrooper pledged a clean-up. His reputation was staked on change.

Even if Bolsonaro can cling on for now, his long-term future looks doubtful

Enter Covid-19: the President resisted calls for quarantines and belittled those expressing concern about the virus. Never one to err on the side of restraint, he fired two health ministers. Protests in March 2020 calling for his resignation fell on deaf ears; we can only guess, had they been heeded, how many of Brazil’s half a million Covid-19 victims could have been spared.

Brazilians are once more on the streets protesting Bolsonaro’s approach to the pandemic, but a lot is different this time. For starters, a congressional investigation into the Brazilian government’s handling of the pandemic has made plain to all what many have been saying for months. Even far-right newspaper O Estado de São Paulo has joined the calls for Bolsonaro’s removal due to his government’s “crass and preposterous” response to the pandemic.

At next year’s presidential election, Brazilians may face a very depressing choice indeed

More serious though for Bolsonaro are allegations which surfaced from the investigation, which found that a vaccine deal was corrupt. The leaders of centrist parties in Congress allied to Bolsonaro are accused of profiting from the deal. This raises a serious quandary. Bolsonaro could deny the allegations and back his allies, forcing other members of the coalition to leave, as Gilberto Kassab already has. Or, he could abandon his corrupt allies, which comes at a high cost: he would lose the required votes in Congress to block bids to impeach him.

Bolsonaro is short of allies in Brazilian politics. The Speaker of the House Arthur Lira is one of few allies, who has so far blocked dozens of attempts to impeach Bolsonaro. Yet with a majority of Brazilians supporting such efforts, it is unclear how much longer Lira can prevent them. It is looking more and more plausible that Congress might approve them.

Even if Bolsonaro can cling on for now, his long-term future looks doubtful. Polls show that in an election run today between him and Lula de Silva, who was sentenced as part of the Lavo Jato, the latter would win. And as information about the vaccine deal is unearthed, Bolsonaro’s popularity is hardly likely to increase. A money-launderer, or a man responsible for half a million deaths: at next year’s presidential election, Brazilians may face a very depressing choice indeed. 

Image: Palácio do Planalto via Flickr

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