Brazil: As COVID-19 death toll spirals out of control, Bolsonaro pursues strategy of 'permanent radicalisation'

May 7, 2020
Vila Formosa cemetary in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo:

Already immersed in an overlapping health and economic crisis, Brazil is now also being engulfed by a political crisis.

On April 23, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro sacked the head of the Federal Police, Mauricio Valeixo, and replaced him with Alexandre Ramagem, a friend of his son and Rio de Janeiro city councillor, Carlos Bolsonaro.

In response, justice minister Sérgio Moro — a key figure in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation into supposed corruption within the former leftist Workers’ Party (PT) government — resigned, accusing the president of wanting to access intelligence reports from an investigation authorised by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) into Bolsonaro and his close collaborators.

Judge Alexandre de Moraes, who sits on the STF, then blocked the appointment of Ramagem as the new police chief.

Bolsonaro has created this mess by seeking to play the radicalisation card amid a worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already left more than 8000 dead, as the president encourages his supporters to oppose social distancing.

In this interview, Sao Paulo University professor André Singer, who was previously a spokesperson in the first PT government headed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2002-2006) outlines some of the key dynamics underpinning the current situation in Brazil.

How much of a surprise was Moro’s resignation from the cabinet?

Moro’s exit was not expected, at least in terms of its timing. There are multiple interpretations regarding who pushed him to do it and why. But no one knows for sure. Only time and further investigation will determine the contours of these events, which are full of unknowns and manoeuvres on different levels.

I get the impression, although I am not sure, that Bolsonaro, once again, took the initiative, carrying out a very risky move — given its symbolic power — against a former judge seen by society as a tribune of the struggle against corruption. This is because Bolsonaro prefers a strategy of permanent radicalisation.

Moro left the post with two implicit, but strong, messages: first, that Bolsonaro tried to interfere in the Federal Police, which has generally had autonomy to carry out its own investigations since the new constitution was approved in 1988; and secondly, that he is willing to be a presidential candidate in 2022.

The first message opens up a debate on possible crimes of responsibility, that could lead to an impeachment or criminal charges (for obstructing justice), that would need to be investigated by the STF.

The problem is that in both cases, such processes would require the support of two-thirds of Congress, that is, 342 votes, which could only occur if an ideologically broad coalition was formed to push it forward.

This is the bottleneck at the moment, because such a coalition does not exist. Perhaps such a coalition will need to emerge from society to then pressure the parties, which are currently divided by electoral interests, which makes it hard to achieve the necessary unity to defend democracy.

With the second message, Moro might be able to unite those that have recently become disappointed by Bolsonaro, proposing a “legalist” conversion of sectors that, until recently, had drifted to the extreme right. But as he has no prior political career, it is difficult to know if he will be able to achieve this and how.

At the moment, Moro’s main competitor is Sao Paulo governor João Doria, who, as the head of those political forces in favour of social distancing and quarantining to combat the pandemic, is seeking to occupy the same ideological space as Moro. Doria has the advantage of being a governor and has experience, even if brief, in running in elections.

In any case, both these figures have projected themselves on the national stage amid the crisis provoked by COVID-19.

Does such a thing as a Bolsonarist social-political bloc exist?

In the last five years a Bolsonarist social and ideological bloc seems to have emerged. Yet, it is difficult to know how big it is, because it began small, cohering radicalised sectors opposed to the PT in 2015. Bit by bit it grew and exploded in the 2018 election campaign, when it was capable of attracting voters that had broken with Lulism and won the presidential elections.

However, in the first four months of government, in 2019, Bolsonaro lost about 20% of his electorate and gave the impression that he would rapidly isolate himself. In this hypothesis, his support shrunk to what polls indicate is the hard core of Bolsonarism, which according to some analysts, only brings together 10% of voters; that is, the most ideological and radicalised. His message is one of anti-PTism, mixed with United States-style anti-Communism and rejection of “traditional politicians”.

It should be noted that polls carried out since the start of the pandemic offer inaccurate results regarding Bolsonaro’s popularity. It is always important to remember that the best polls are done face-to-face, which is not possible during lockdown, so they have to use mobile phones, which makes it difficult to compare data.

But taking this uncertainty into account, to date we have no proof of a fall in the government’s approval rating since the pandemic started, which continues to be about 30%. On the other hand, in the last few weeks, the number of people who believe the president’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak has been bad or very bad has risen from 33% to 45%.

It is still not clear what this third of the electorate, which has supported Bolsonaro from the start of his government, represents.

According to analysis published by Folha de S Paulo, in the last four months, the sectors with higher incomes and levels of education have been drifting away from the president. But his support has risen among the poorest, as well as among the self-employed and informal workers.

In fact, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro has lost support in middle class areas that supported him in 2018. The panelaço [pot-banging protests] against the president can now be heard in neighbourhoods that previously supported him.

His coronavirus denialism, the lack of respect given to recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and his indifference to the victims of the pandemic, current or potential, explain this reaction. Various important allies have broken with the former military captain.

On the other hand, Bolsonaro’s position in support of restarting economic activities — and against social distancing — could win him support precisely where Lulism is strongest: the popular classes. In the same way, the fact that some people are now receiving the 600 real (US$112) payment could explain a certain shift in support for the president.

This indicates, on the one hand, that his base of support has not yet stabilised. On the other, the pandemic is leading to changes that could be important for the future of any potential social-ideological bloc that emerges. It is worth noting, however, that these are still fragile and incipient elements that have to be monitored closely.

What is the role of the military in all this?

The role of the military until now has been enigmatic. Although there are a considerable number of military officials in the government, it is not yet clear what relationship the military has established with the president.

For months, it was said they were trying to moderate him. However, Bolsonaro has maintained his style and radical project. Even when he backs off, he normally resumes the offensive again.

I believe the biggest risk is not a self-coup, but rather a continuous and barely perceivable slide towards an authoritarian situation, with the support of the Armed Forces. Adam Przeworski used the concept of “stealth authoritarianism”, which I think is appropriate for considering this situation.

The mystery is compounded by the fact that, if Bolsonaro is removed from power, General Hamilton Mourão would assume the presidency. What type of government would he preside over? How committed is he to democracy? No one knows.

What position has the PT taken?

After an initially moderate position, Lula da Silva and the PT have, in the last few days, come to support the idea that the president has to go. But it is still not clear how to achieve this.

There are various ways this could occur: impeachment, via a case presented to the STF, and even an attempting to challenge the election of the Bolsonaro-Mourão list for its use of fake news in the 2018 election campaigns. The best scenario for the PT would be to get to the elections in 2022, with democratic conditions prevailing, and that Lula da Silva can stand.

Bolsonaro’s permanent radicalisation makes the trajectory of the next three years very uncertain. But for now, the PT and Lula have not been able to take the political initiative, which today is immersed in a logic of confrontation between the right and extreme right.

[First published in Nueva Sociedad. Translated by Federico Fuentes.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.