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June 12, 2020

BRAZIL: Covid-19 “data pedaling” averted, institution-bashing calms down

BY Mario Marconini

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  • The episode of suppressing Covid-19 data has reached a reasonable ending.
  • Pressures from manifestos, the streets, and Supreme Court-mandated investigations have produced a new Bolsonaro – for now.
  • Fears of radical institutional instability were not irrational but based on significant signs from the government.
  • The president has succeeded in building a bulwark in Congress to prevent an impeachment or trials.

The controversial decision to suppress the release of Covid-19 data last week seemed to have reached a peak on President Jair Bolsonaro’s provocation curve. In a way, he was saved by Supreme Court (STF) judge Alexandre de Moraes who ordered the health ministry to resume publishing the data in its previous format. The notion of suppressing or manipulating data relating to the pandemic could have made the president’s life more complicated vis-a-vis the authorities that can put him on trial or launch an impeachment process. Curiously, former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached on a similar charge in relation to macroeconomic data – the so-called “fiscal pedaling”. Bolsonaro was thus saved from a “pandemic pedaling” of sorts. Since then, he has been uncharacteristically calm, appearing presidential in televised cabinet meetings and even addressing Covid-19 affected families – a first.

Danger in sight

Pro-democracy protests against the president, fascism, and racism over the weekend may also have served to alter his usual demeanor. Clearly, it was difficult for Bolsonaro to deny the damaging potential of the streets to his short and medium-term future. A day before the protests, the president had called “enemy” protestors terrorists in what seemed an attempt to disseminate the narrative of a country out of control which needs the tenacious command of a strong leader. Significant civil society segments, who had banded together and spent the better part of last week issuing pro-democracy manifestos, kept up the pressure against a perceived autocratic crescendo by the president and his entourage. The protests ultimately deflated the president’s incendiary narrative and gave the upper hand to the pro-democracy movement. That had the effect of bringing a sort of truce to the two camps. In any case, there is a greater chance that Bolsonaro, not the pro-democracy forces, quietens down. After all, Bolsonaro is treading on dangerous Supreme Court ground and his civil society opponents know they can make a difference if they remain active.

Military intimidation

The fear of the instalment of a state of exception that would bring greater power to the president and his government cannot be summarily discarded. Not too long ago, the military top-brass in the government was perceived as a stabilizing factor, a moderating element, that could ensure the president behaved with a minimum level of civility and respect for institutions. As sensitive and potentially incriminating evidence began to reach the country’s highest court, resulting in investigations with great destructive potential for the presidency, the military top brass replaced conciliatory discourse with reactive intimidation. Even Vice-President Hamilton Mourao, formerly perceived as a balanced alternative to Bolsonaro in case of an impeachment, revealed his true colors in articles and interviews that clearly exempted his government from the problematic handling of the pandemic or the political chaos the country finds itself in. The fact that the VP morphed from presidential narrative-reviewer to presidential defender put much of society in a defensive position.

Playing the game

The pandemic will not go away, nor will complications at the STF. The president is therefore likely to keep his head low and play the democratic game. In fact, he has been doing fairly well at this in the last few days. On 10 June Bolsonaro scored big by appointing another Centrao operative, representative Fabio Faria (Social Democratic Party, PSD-RN), for the top post in a yet-to-be-re-created Communications Ministry. By renouncing incendiary discourse and playing into the hands of the political system he so vehemently criticized all along, Bolsonaro may have killed two birds with one stone. By pleasing the Centrao, he may have secured a level of governability he had not even sought to achieve since inauguration. By pleasing House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who considers the appointment a major victory for his chamber, Bolsonaro may have succeeded in averting majorities forming in Congress that could impeach him or send him to trial at the Supreme Court.

This may be a spectacular situation reversal for the president, predicated on a relatively simple behavioral change. There are two important conditions that need to be met, however, for the new normal to do its magic for the president. First, Bolsonaro will have to avoid being his usual self and stop fabricating unnecessary crises. Second, the evidence produced from the Supreme-Court mandated investigations must be digestible for civil society and the political establishment – in that order. Absent either of these two conditions, Bolsonaro’s future may turn bleaker again.

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