Amid rising rejection towards his government and strong support for a presidential candidacy by former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President Jair Bolsonaro seems to have doubled down on his die-hard, social media-driven constituency. According to the polls, rejection of his government has reached the highest level since June 2020 at 59% (five percentage points higher than two weeks ago), though 35% of the population remains in approval. It has been the president’s hope that the approval of at least one third of the electorate should suffice to put him in a run-off election against the Left. With Lula as contender, however, the risk is real that, in the absence of a strong centrist candidate, the former president prevails in the first round of the October 2022 elections.
The president has been especially obstinate in doing two things: (1) attacking the Senate inquiry (CPI) that has been consistently confirming his responsibilities for the disastrous handling of the pandemic; and (2) provoking the armed forces to try and elicit support for his government and his democracy-defiant attitudes. The latest episode in the context of the president’s new combative stance has been his explicit support of former health minister, Army General Eduardo Pazuello, following the latter’s controversial testimony to the CPI on 19-20 May, fully based on unequivocal lies to shield Bolsonaro from any accountability. Over the weekend, Pazuello took part in a political rally held by Bolsonaro following a motorcade he himself led through the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
The Vice-President, Army General Hamilton Mourao, has reiterated several times this week that Pazuello must be punished by the armed forces lest anarchy prevails in the barracks. Mourao, who has been sidelined by Bolsonaro for months, has been calling for Pazuello’s early leave of active duty for reserves. Bolsonaro rejects any punishment or early retirement impositions. For Mourao and the military’s top brass, the president’s attitude can only be taken as a blunt provocation. Things have not been pacified since three commanders of the armed forces resigned jointly on 30 March following the president’s dismissal of the then defense minister, Army General Azevedo e Silva.
It is not the first time Bolsonaro tests the level of support for his government in the barracks. It is striking that he does so once again now, however, when he is at a particularly low point and shows no sign of wanting to collaborate with Congress or even the Supreme Court – both of which were deemed crucial a few months ago in his strategy to shield himself and his family from prosecution. Bolsonaro gives signs that he now looks at the military to do more than just protect him from trouble. His reactions seem to be those of a politician that can see defeat ahead and wants to resist. This is why it is no coincidence that Bolsonaro insists that the existing electronic voting system is “riddled with fraud” (in the absence of any evidence) – a convenient excuse to reject results from the ballot when the time comes. His strategy is flawed and should not prevail but nothing else can explain the logic of his current behavior.