Last week, President Jair Bolsonaro strayed from his normal path and created an Amazon Council and a National Environmental Force – both to be commanded by his VP Hamilton Mourao, who the president had relegated to a less than secondary role to stall his growing popularity. That was done out of electoral pragmatism, to ensure that investors did not punish the country excessively and jeopardize the path to economic growth and, therefore, to his re-election. On 29 January Bolsonaro did it again, this time convincing soap-opera star Regina Duarte to accept an offer to become special culture secretary within the Tourism Ministry. Once again, with an eye on his re-election in 2022, the president decided to call a truce with the traditionally left-leaning celebrity class and avoid having to pay an electoral price for continued conflict with the cultural establishment.
Bolsonaro is not changing his beliefs. In fact, there is great tension in the air when the president seems to be conceding on matters that are dear to his heart – such as an explicit disdain for environmental protection and a strong adherence to Christian values. It is unclear if and how long the president might endure a policy orientation that attenuates his innermost tenets. The issue for Bolsonaro is not whether he can go back on decisions; he does so fairly often, particularly following strong reactions in the social media, his main vehicle of communication and his favored barometer of the popular pulse. The issue for him is how to reconcile maintaining his loyal far-right support while securing the centrist vote. His answer is not to hesitate in doing the right thing for the economy while applying very carefully how far he can drift from his original campaign platform in the social area.
Bolsonaro should not be expected to change his die-hard policy views but he has entered 2020 much more sensitive to issues that have strong electoral appeal. In that sense, he started the year more willing to take risks as long as a palpable electoral benefit could be foreseen from his actions. Polls have consistently shown that the electorate is equally divided in thirds, along clear political lines: the right, the center, and the left. Bolsonaro recognizes that the center will be the true battleground and he has seemingly understood that it is high time to tack to the center and hope that his investment in catering to the far-right in the first year of his government (to little effective success from a legislative perspective) has secured its support regardless.
Finally, the president also hopes to raise his profile as a non-traditional politician by kickstarting his own party – the Alliance for Brazil (ALIANCA) – in time for the October municipal elections. It is unlikely that he will get the necessary 492,000 signatures by mid-March so that the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) can register it by the April deadline. Even if ALIANCA was created in time, its success in the ballot would likely be limited – but Bolsonaro would at least secure greater visibility already in 2020 than would be the case without having a party to call his own.