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March 25, 2021


BRAZIL: Presidential photo-op will not suffice to appease political leaders

BY Mario Marconini

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President Jair Bolsonaro did not restrain his anger when speaking on the subject of the pandemic following the episode of the change at the helm of the health ministry. Since then, he has in fact filed a case at the Supreme Court (STF) against governors that implement curfews to control infections and appeared in front of a crowd of supporters (only a few with masks on) outside the presidential palace on 21 March to celebrate his 66th birthday. His anniversary speech was impassioned but choleric against the “usual suspects” – i.e., governors, the media, and all those that want to “take him away”. He actually said that he would do anything for “his” people to preserve the right to come and go and that the armed forces were there to preserve democracy and freedom.

Neither episode went down very well with the political class, particularly as polls continue to show an upsurge in Bolsonaro’s rejection rating. Independent talk of a national pandemic pact among the three branches of government and the prosecutor’s office emerged but the presidency moved quickly to own the initiative and invite a few allied governors. Once again, it was expected that the president would calm down and acquiesce to the most pressing demands to combat the pandemic.

Bolsonaro was certainly no longer choleric in the meeting that took place on 24 March, but still spoke against lockdowns and in favor of preventive medicine. The perception of the meeting was that it was yet another marketing exercise to show leadership – but even then, the president was incapable of conceding on key elements of a fairly consensual anti-Covid-19 strategy in both Congress and the STF. The meeting took place on the day when Brazil reached 300,000 deaths from Covid-19.

Chairman of the Senate Rodrigo Pacheco from the Democrats (DEM), who will lead a newly created committee to combat the pandemic, attempted to characterize its most deadly phase as driven by “a disease with different characteristics from the one experienced in 2020” – as if this is why the government is only now acting to fight Covid. House Speaker Arthur Lira from the Progressives (PP), however, was adamant that unless there is a significant course correction in fighting the pandemic Congress may resort to “bitter political remedies”.

As noted previously, the alliance between Bolsonaro and Congress, with both leaders from the so-called Big Center, was conditional on the president’s behavior and popularity. The Big Center is pragmatic – as opposed to ideological – and could abandon the president any time it felt that it was not in its interest to support him any longer. The main risk remains first and foremost the president’s impetuous governing style, followed closely by the worsening of economic conditions, and its consequent effect on Bolsonaro’s popularity ratings. Considering that Bolsonaro continues to govern predominantly for his most loyal supporters, it is unlikely that he will change his narrative even if tacitly supporting, as a matter of political expediency, the national pact against the pandemic.

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