Bolsonaro Finds Himself Cornered by Pandemic He Tried to Ignore

Covid-19 has run rampant through Brazil over the past year and now, in just a few days, it has pushed President Jair Bolsonaro up against a wall where he’s struggling mightily to escape.

Nine of his most senior officials have quit or been sacked since Monday, including ministers of defense, justice and foreign affairs, along with the chief of every branch of the military. The changes are part of a broad government shake-up launched by the president to accommodate those who are still willing to support him, even as rage over his handling of the pandemic grows.

Thousands die daily, half a million get sick every week and vaccines are in short supply following months of his ignoring medical advice and pleas from allies to take the virus more seriously.

Bolsonaro Finds Himself Cornered by Pandemic He Tried to Ignore

An anti-establishment politician with no party of his own, Bolsonaro swept into office two years ago on a promise of ending corruption, promoting the military and freeing the economy from the weight of state bureaucracy. Instead, it’s all about the pandemic now. And while few believe he’s defeated, all agree he’s in trouble.

“We are seeing the president now cornered by society, congress and even the judiciary,” Rogerio Xavier, a founding partner at SPX Capital, said on a webcast Tuesday. “We always have to be careful with the actions of cornered presidents.”

Others say Bolsonaro is unable or unwilling to launch radical counterattacks like a coup d’etat or shutting congress or the top court. His replacement of the defense minister and the commanders of the army, navy and air force is more prosaic, according to a minister close to him who asked not to be named because the discussions are private. Bolsonaro, the minister said, wants the top military to explicitly defend his government and his actions on the pandemic.

Investors’ fears eased on the notion that Bolsonaro’s more hardline impulses are going to be curbed by the growing power of centrist parties, who continue to support his agenda in congress and defend him against impeachment attempts.

The Brazilian real was one of the best performers among emerging-market currencies, and local stocks advanced for a fourth session on Tuesday as traders took in the cabinet changes. Investors are waiting to see whether the shake-up might improve the relationship between executive and legislative branches.

Yet Bolsonaro’s nods to a more moderate approach seem limited. On Wednesday, the health minister and the head of the Senate emerged from the first meeting of the joint task-force to oversee the response to the pandemic touting the importance of masks and avoiding large gatherings during the upcoming Easter holiday. When it came his turn to speak, Bolsonaro repeated familiar lines on getting life back to normal and criticizing lockdowns.

Falling Pillars

Bolsonaro has relied on three key pillars -- the business community, the military and his right-wing base -- and he’s shown skill at keeping each satisfied and at bay. But threats are growing as was seen last week when Lower House Speaker Arthur Lira, an ally and leader of a powerful block of centrist parties, hinted at impeachment in a speech to fellow lawmakers.

“He’s becoming weaker and more isolated,” said Octavio Amorim Neto, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, one of Brazil’s top universities.

The balancing act has become all the more precarious with the reemergence of his chief political rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, who was cleared of corruption convictions by a supreme court justice earlier this month, allowing him to run in 2022 presidential elections. His case will still be reviewed by the plenary of the court.

Bolsonaro came to power challenging the country’s establishment, but eventually had to rely on a group of centrist lawmakers who have for decades held considerable power in Brazil’s congress, no matter who the president was. The group, also known as the “centrao,” has started to make more demands on the president, who is coming to terms with them.

“Bolsonaro is at the most difficult moment of his mandate with the collapse of the health system and is aligning himself with this reality,” said Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas at Eurasia Group.

Until the End

Truth is, with some 2,500 Brazilians dying of the virus each day -- and a record 3,780 on Tuesday alone -- the far-right former army captain was already undergoing something of an about-face. Once disdainful toward masks, Bolsonaro now often covers his face in public. And after criticizing immunizations as “nonsensical” and “experimental,” he declared in a national address last week that “2021 will be the year of vaccines.”

The latest crisis began when he was pushed by centrao to fire his far-right foreign minister, seen as an obstacle to obtaining vaccines from China and the U.S. That led to a further cabinet reshuffle to ease relations with congress.

Mauricio Santoro, a professor of political science at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, says the president may be making some compromises but is also closing ranks to maintain his power base.

“He’s trying to focus on the people he knows who will be with him until the end,” he said.

The new foreign minister, Carlos Alberto Franca, is a little-know former ambassador who had spent most of career working in protocol matters. “He is so weak in political terms that he depends completely on the president,” Santoro said.

In a way, some analysts said, the pandemic has made normal political opposition, such as street demonstrations, nearly impossible. So that while it has challenged the president, lowering his approval rating to 30% in a March 17 Datafolha poll, it has also protected him.

The question is whether the changes will be enough to calm not only the markets but the other pillars of power as the coronavirus continues its rampage.

“It’s not going to help Bolosonaro to govern,” Santoro added. “But it’s something that’s going to protect him from criticism from people inside the administration refusing to take orders.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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