Bolsonaro Faces ‘Possibly Explosive’ Probe Into Virus Policy

Brazil’s senate has opened a wide-ranging probe into the federal government’s erratic response to the coronavirus pandemic, as opponents of President Jair Bolsonaro try to seize on a key source of vulnerability ahead of his 2022 re-election bid.

The 11-member parliamentary inquiry committee started working on Tuesday by electing centrist Senator Omar Aziz as its president, who then appointed Renan Calheiros as its rapporteur. Calheiros, a powerful political enemy of Bolsonaro, has been warming ties with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, now a likely contender in next year’s election.

While senators are also expected to investigate alleged misuse of federal Covid funds by states and municipalities, it’s Bolsonaro who stands to lose the most. The probe is the latest and possibly the most politically damaging push yet to hold the far-right president accountable for one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, and follows dozens of impeachment requests already filed against him.

“There are people responsible, there are culprits,” Calheiros said about the government’s poor handling of the crisis, without naming names. “They will be held accountable.”

Bolsonaro Faces ‘Possibly Explosive’ Probe Into Virus Policy

Efforts to remove the president from office are unlikely to gain traction while he maintains a solid base of support among centrist parties and remains on good terms with the speaker of the lower house. Yet the investigation gives Bolsonaro’s foes a powerful platform to attack him.

“It’s potentially explosive,” said Michael Mohallem, a constitutional law expert in Rio de Janeiro. “In other inquiries you start with a big question mark that sometimes develop, but this one starts with a lot of juicy elements.”

The parliamentary committee only came to life after Brazil’s top court earlier this month backed a motion signed by more than one-third of senators demanding an investigation on the government’s Covid response. Until then, Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco, another ally of Bolsonaro, had resisted installing it, ignoring the senate’s internal rules.

Sucking the Air

The committee will collect evidence, interview experts and government officials over the coming months. As a political body, its results are always unpredictable -- while many such probes have fizzled in Brazil’s recent history, in 1992 a CPI investigating corruption allegations against former President Fernando Collor de Mello led to his eventual impeachment.

Even if its investigation leads nowhere, the committee may delay the approval of reforms sponsored by the government, and force Bolsonaro to acquiesce to lawmaker demands for more funds and jobs in the administration in exchange for political support.

“It will suck all the energy from the political system,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro Faces ‘Possibly Explosive’ Probe Into Virus Policy

Unlike other cases against the president, the committee is expected to publicly scrutinize some of the most problematic aspects of Brazil’s official response, including delays in the purchase of vaccines, shortage of medicines to intubate patients and lack of oxygen in hospitals. Out of its 11 members, only four are openly pro-government. Two are against it and five are seen as independent.

Nearly 400,000 people have died so far from Covid-19 in Brazil, making the country of 212 million one of the global epicenters of the pandemic.

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has been telling supporters he is not worried about the proceedings, and doubled down on past criticisms of lockdown measures by state governors and mayors. “I’m not worried because we don’t owe anything,” he said on Monday at an event in the state of Bahia.

Even with millions getting infected by Covid-19 and a slow immunization campaign, Bolsonaro has managed to stave off calls for his ouster with the support of his allies in congress and a core political base that ensures an approval rating around 30%. At the same time, fears of getting infected and restrictions on movement have dissuaded many of his detractors from taking to the streets.

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