Teneo-Europe-Report

May 21, 2020

BRAZIL: Political new normal favors president, pandemic at alarming rate

BY Mario Marconini

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( 5 mins)
  • Covid-19 has reached alarming levels but the president remains focused on averting impeachment.
  • Polls indicate that presidential disapproval is on the rise but they also show a resilient core, now possibly including some of the most vulnerable share of the population.
  • The absence of both mega-protests and declining approval rates, particularly as the president has traded pork and patronage with Centrao parties, make for dim prospects for an impeachment.

Brazil has now reached more than one thousand deaths per day and the risk of a health system collapse in Sao Paulo, the original epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, is at its highest. This pits President Jair Bolsonaro against his main nemesis, Sao Paulo governor and likely presidential contender Joao Doria, who is the most influential supporter of full lockdowns as a last-ditch attempt to contain the outbreak. The spat somehow ensures that politics prevails over health policy and prevents the necessary coordination across levels of government, particularly in a country of continental dimensions. The president has also focused in the last few weeks on doing whatever it takes to protect his family and prevent cases against him from reaching Congress and justifying an impeachment proceeding. In the midst of so much doubt about the pandemic and the economy, Bolsonaro’s future is unlikely to include removal from the presidential chair.

Approval rating

The government’s approval rating has oscillated between 25% and 30% in the polls. Disapproval overtook approval as far back as a year ago when it was at 34% but a poll (XP/Ipespe) released yesterday, 20 May, shows a significant increase in disapproval from 36% to 50% since 20 February. Now, 48% expect the worst for the remainder of Bolsonaro’s mandate (2022) against 27% who expect the best. To make matters worse, close to 60% of those polled disapprove of the president’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – the worst mark among his own ministers, governors (23%) and even Congress (39%). In stark contrast to Bolsonaro’s denialist attitude towards the pandemic, 76% of the population supports social isolation policies and 57% believe it should last until risk levels are small, with 68% expecting the worst is yet to come.

Resilient support

However, support for the president has been resilient at one quarter to one third of the electorate. This is significant when one considers that since the start of the health crisis in Brazil (mid-March) the president has not only dismissed two good health ministers but also forced the resignation of popular Justice Minister Sergio Moro and had to fend off charges of responsibility crimes that have reached the Supreme Court. One explanation is that the support that was shed from far-right anti-corruption segments on account of Moro’s departure may have been compensated by increasing approval levels from those who are receiving assistance during the pandemic – potentially 50mn Brazilians, of which half may have been able to register and receive assistance. Those who are unemployed or do not have a fixed income have been the only income bracket to profess a higher approval than disapproval of the president since 15 April.

Impeachment totally out?

In the absence of mega-street protests or a rapidly decreasing approval rating, Congress has no courage to move forward, especially now that Bolsonaro has engaged in “deep” pork and patronage with the “Big Center” parties (“Centrao”) in Congress. Former President Dilma Rousseff also tried to “buy” the Centrao to prevent impeachment in 2016; at the time, the Centrao was willing to accept what she had to offer (BRL 38bn) but preferred to go against her regardless when pro-impeachment street protests reached more than one million people in Sao Paulo and her popularity sank to as low as 8%. Under current conditions, the Supreme Court is even less audacious than Congress. It could, for example, accept charges from the head prosecutor in the case of Bolsonaro’s interference in the Federal Police and suspend him from his functions for 180 days – but it is not feasible that it will without the two ingredients: mega-protests and tanking approval. In times of a pandemic, mega-protests are out of the question, so all attention goes to the polls.

Centrao totally in?

It has been a case of so far, so good for Bolsonaro when it comes to securing support from the Centrao. He has conceded top-level posts in state-controlled companies in the poorer and politically contrarian Northeast region. He has even given a directorship to the Progressistas Party at the National Fund for the Development of Education (FNDE) within the Education Ministry – the fiefdom of one of his “protected” ministers, Abraham Weintraub, one of the leaders of the “cultural wars” segment in the administration. Speaker Rodrigo Maia received Bolsonaro in his cabinet on 15 May and has been especially conciliatory since the Centrao began to “abandon” him in favor of Bolsonaro. Symptomatically, the government has conceded on delaying university-entry exams once it saw that Congress was about to approve it. Various iconic Centrao leaders known by the public for their significant involvement in Carwash wrongdoing have spoken openly in favor of the president and his government in the last couple of weeks.

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