President Jair Bolsonaro’s political situation is worse after the Independence Day (7 September) protests that he encouraged. The crowds were impressive in both Brasilia and Sao Paulo, the two cities where he chose to deliver speeches. Over the weekend preceding the events, the president went on social media to speak of peace and harmony – in a clear attempt to avert violence or other commotion that might work against him. He even tried to turn his original narrative against the Supreme Court (STF) and Congress into a call for freedom of expression and the end of political arrests. Suddenly, he was for democracy and the STF for authoritarianism.
This attempted role reversal would not survive his speeches, however. In Brasilia, he said that the president of the STF, Luis Fux, should control his judges – a reference to Alexandre de Moraes, who leads several investigations against the president in the court – or “suffer the consequences.” In Sao Paulo, hours later, he said that he would not comply with judicial decisions taken by Moraes, claiming that the people’s patience had ended. He also hinted that he would not accept election results from the existing electronic voting system – despite the rejection by the House of a constitutional amendment that would revert voting to paper balloting. His exasperation with Moraes completes full circle in the electoral sphere since the judge will be presiding the TSE electoral court at the time of the October 2022 elections.
The protests and Bolsonaro’s speeches provoked a strong reaction from Fux, a mixed reaction from lower house president Arthur Lira, and a measured reaction from Senate Chairman Rodrigo Pacheco. None of them called for the ineligibility of the president for campaigning illegally or his impeachment for crimes of responsibility such as working against the “free exercise” of power by other branches of government (art. 85 of the Federal Constitution). However, Fux was adamant in characterizing a refusal to comply with judicial decisions a crime of responsibility. Lira said it was high time to stop escalating political tensions in an “endless negative loop” but did not raise the possibility of an impeachment. Pacheco spoke against authoritarianism and anti-democratic outbursts.
Turbulence, both political and economic, should be expected for the next few weeks. Bolsonaro is unlikely to calm down and the institutions unlikely to put up with his actions. The economic agenda in Congress is possibly the main victim of the new and precarious balance of power in Brasilia. For one, the government will now have greater difficulty funding a new cash transfer program without a solution to the BRL 90bn it needs to pay out in judicial claims next year. Reformist measures such as changes in income tax (recently approved by the House) or the revisiting of an administrative reform should be put aside as parties reconsider their positions with respect to the government and the future of the president.
The protests looked much better for Bolsonaro than existing poll numbers that show rejection rates of 63-64% for himself and his government. Bolsonaro will continue to go from smokescreen to smokescreen, questioning democracy itself and threatening institutions in an effort to prevent real-world issues from reaching him – such as an estimated two-digit inflation rate by year-end.