As Covid-19 Kills More Brazilians, Bolsonaro’s Presidency Lives On

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The drums of impeachment are thudding again in Brazil. Rising fury over President Jair Bolsonaro’s feckless Covid-19 strategy sent thousands of protestors to the streets last weekend even as dozens of patients were dying of asphyxiation in the stricken city of Manaus. If it were up to the country’s eager pot-bangers, social media warriors, some church leaders and assorted political discontents, Bolsonaro would no doubt be toast.

Bolsonaro’s approval rating has tumbled six to 11 points, depending on the poll, since December, to just over 30%. His rejection rate jumped eight points to 40%. Driving the funk is not just Brasilia’s listless response to a deadly second wave of the pandemic which has taken some 222,000 lives, more than in any country except the U.S., but also the end of generous emergency cash handouts on Dec. 31.

Don’t reach for the confetti cannon just yet. As it happens, Brazilians, who helped cashier two of the nation’s last five presidents, turning impeachment practically into a recall vote, remain ambivalent about the fumbler in the palace. Bolsonaro still retains a strategic minority of congressional votes and solid political capital: 53% of those polled last week said they were opposed to impeachment.

Parsing Bolsonaro’s resilience is keeping political scientists in Power Points and Zoom calls, but the Bolsonaro method is familiar by now: Blunder and bloviate, antagonize rivals, punch down at civil society critics while purring at power, fire ministers who embarrass him and double back whenever convenient.

That chaotic regimen may explain Bolsonaro’s uncanny ability to pivot from serial crises he himself created — downplaying the worst public health disaster on record, attacking the Supreme Court, big-footing the federal police — by changing the subject and deflecting blame to political adversaries without ever looking back.

Hence, the ravages of the pandemic he dissed as a bout of sniffles and a menace only to “pansies” are now, we are to believe, the oeuvre of imprudent local leaders. The let-them-take-chloroquine health directives he pushed have given way to scrambling for frontline vaccines. The unashamed China-basher is now a supplicant, imploring Beijing for extra doses of the Covid shot that he disparaged.

The corrupt political insiders he once vilified are his new best friends and, he hopes, a firewall to impeachment. Now the fiscal paladin, now the statist diehard, he has made privatization a mantra but failed to sell a single government company. “The self-styled Brazilian outsider has become the consummate political insider,” says political analyst Fernando Schuler, at Sao Paulo’s Insper business school.  

That chaotic formula may go down in flush times. It could also be his undoing, if the economy fails to rebound and the second pandemic wave goes unchecked. Yet Bolsonaro’s staying power also speaks to the disarray of the Brazilian political opposition and the paucity of palatable alternatives.

Vice President Hamilton Mourao was once thought to be Brazil’s best contingency plan. A retired general who is well read and traveled, Mourao was touted as the alpha adult in the room who understood Brazil’s place in the global compact and could finesse the diplomatic messes — tidying the repeated slights to China, Brazil’s biggest trading partner, keeping Brazil in the maligned Paris Climate Agreement — his mercurial boss created.

Yet Mourao has served less as chaperone than enabler. More importantly, his residual cachet with less choleric conservatives could be why, for all the shouting, the Brazilian opposition is diffident about pressing impeachment. Better to let Bolsonaro rage and fumble, the logic goes, than swap him out for the more politic right-winger with a presentable resume and a head start in the 2022 elections, according to Tag Report, an insider Brazilian political newsletter.

There are risks either way, but the obstacles to impeachment are telling. More than attitude, Brazil’s opposition needs a plan. That won’t come about unless the country’s political contenders appreciate the social upheaval that has shaken national politics and led to Bolsonaro’s rise.

Step number one is to shed the illusion that Brazilians have swooned to some novel ideological contagion, or that the political norm was the succession of reformist capitalists and soft-left governments — from moderate social democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso to Workers’ Party icon Lula Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff — who ran the country for most of the last three decades.

“The Brazilian electorate has leaned to the center-right for the last 30 years,” said political scientist Octavio Amorim, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation. “They veered a little more to the center under Lula and Rousseff, but remained conservative at heart.”

Bolsonaro didn’t invent a new Brazilian right wing. Instead, he gave voice and herd immunity to an unlikely mix of evangelicals, authoritarians, family values stalwarts and nativists who had been in quarantine. “Bolsonaro tapped into the mood of the population,” Lucio Renno, a political scientist with the University of Brasilia, wrote. “Other right-wing candidates and their expensive marketing teams failed terribly to perceive the depth of conservatism in Brazil.”

What’s remarkable is that Bolsonaro is not just a right-winger, but an extremist, much more radical than all but a small hard core of devotees. His talent was to gather the factions of this dormant right wing — from racists to economic liberals — and fuel it with a corrosive resentment against the left, which foundered on corruption and economic mismanagement. In so doing, Bolsonaro became “the biggest electoral phenomenon in contemporary Brazilian history,” Amorim told me.

He had help: The country’s “incoherent” party system, with the highest degree of political fragmentation in Latin America, can make any carnival barker with a noisy minority competitive at the polls. Even as he bleeds support, Bolsonaro’s 31% approval rating can save him from impeachment and slip him into an electoral runoff in 2022.

A united opposition could keep that from happening and help restore Brazil to a less toxic if conservative middle ground. But that would take gathering the strands of Brazilian discontents, left, center and right, into a pact, “much as Joe Biden did with the fragmented Democratic Party,” said Amorim. It won’t be easy, but the results would surely beat pot-banging.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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