I Am What I Am, Bolsonaro Says, as Unfiltered Words Rile Allies

(Bloomberg) -- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has a clear message for allies and critics alike after a slew of incendiary comments: I am not going to change.

Over the past few weeks Bolsonaro has threatened a journalist with jail, mocked the dead father of Brazil’s Bar Association president and canceled a meeting with the French foreign minister to have his hair cut during a Facebook Live.

Whether this brutal break with standard presidential decorum will have any political consequences remains an open question. Polls show he has lost popular approval faster than any other president since the return to democracy, but for the time being investors are shrugging off any concerns as his government makes steady progress on economic reforms.

I Am What I Am, Bolsonaro Says, as Unfiltered Words Rile Allies

Like President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has a solid support base who voted for him fully cognizant of his unfiltered style. But unlike his U.S. counterpart, Bolsonaro doesn’t control a significant faction in Congress. And with the presidency determined by popular vote, he’ll need some moderates if he’s to win re-election. At some point, his endless stream of invective against almost all of the country’s institutions may start to cost him real political support.

“The president ought to watch out because if the economy doesn’t improve, things could rapidly spiral out of control,” Andre de Paula, leader of centrist PSD, said. The PSD is one of a handful of centrist parties Bolsonaro relies on to muster the necessary support for his reform agenda in Congress. “Impeachment is always a risk for a tainted government in a bad economic scenario.”

Bolsonaro, however, says that he’s not for turning. In an interview with O Globo newspaper this week, he said that his provocative remarks were not part of a grand strategy. “I’m like that,” he said.

A poll published on Thursday showed Bolsonaro’s approval rating stood at 31%, down almost 2 percentage points since June. Just over 39% of respondents consider his government bad or terrible.

His press office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Incendiary Remarks

The president has repeatedly questioned the official narrative of Brazil’s military dictatorship, recently claiming falsely that one of the country’s most prominent journalists lied about her torture during the period. He’s disparaged Brazilians from the country’s impoverished northeast, rubbished claims that hunger remains a policy challenge, and accused the National Institute of Space Research of manipulating data on deforestation.

In a press conference on Thursday, Bolsonaro said the “false” numbers were damaging his reputation. “Brazil’s image, and my personal image, is terrible abroad due to the labels placed on me,” he said.

Claims earlier this week that he knew what “really happened” to the father of the head of Brazil’s Bar Association -- a man who was murdered by the state in 1974 -- prompted public outrage even from previously stalwart allies, such as the governors of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

For the time-being, however, that looks unlikely to force a change of course. For Renato Nobile, the president of Genial Advisory, which manages around 30 billion reais ($7.8 billion) in assets, the government’s progress on its reform agenda will soon start to have an impact on the real economy.

“The moment is so good that, even with the president talking rubbish, the impact is zero,” he said.

For members of Bolsonaro’s PSL party in Congress, the president is merely being consistent. “No one is surprised by Bolsonaro’s style,” Junior Bozzella, a PSL lawmaker, said. “It’s the same Bolsonaro from the campaign. No one had the wool pulled over their eyes.”

Political analysts are scratching their heads, unsure whether the outbursts are part of a sophisticated strategy to divert attention away from uncomfortable topics or merely the president’s natural inclination.

“The president hasn’t felt, objectively, the effect of any of his bombastic declarations,” Lara Mesquita, a political scientist at the FGV think tank and business school, said.

Yet the Brazilian government has backpedaled on its plans to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem following pressure from meat exporters worried about sales to the Middle East, she noted. “If some economic cost materializes, perhaps that will have an impact.”

Foreign policy is perhaps the area Bolsonaro most risks jeopardizing. His decision to snub France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on his recent visit to Brasilia is unlikely to scupper the ratification of the recently inked European Union-Mercosur trade deal on its own. However, it adds weight to protectionist voices within the EU who are highlighting Bolsonaro’s indifference to environmental concerns as a reason for ditching the deal.

For Jose Nelto, leader of Podemos, another centrist party whose support is key for Bolsonaro’s economic agenda, the president’s comments could undermine his policy objectives. “I am worried because ideology ought not to influence trade deals and foreign relations,” he said. “Trade has no ideology.”

Ambassador Son

Another move that has alarmed some supporters is Bolsonaro’s decision to appoint his son Eduardo, a federal lawmaker, to the U.S. embassy in Washington. While the nomination requires Senate approval, Bolsonaro appears increasingly confident -- following the blessing of Trump himself -- that it’s effectively a done deal.

For Nobre, a graduate in international relations, the president’s decision to nominate his son for the role of ambassador in Washington is “absurd” but he doesn’t think it’s a game changer.

“I think a lot of people who today say they are unsatisfied with him, at heart will end up voting for him again,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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