The 1,178-page report presented on 20 October by the rapporteur of the Senate inquiry (CPI) into the pandemic, Renan Calheiros (PMDB-AL), is unprecedented. Indictments were requested for more than 65 people in relation to 12 crimes. At the top of the indictment list is President Jair Bolsonaro, followed by both his current and previous health ministers – Marcelo Queiroga and Army General Eduardo Pazzuelo – in addition to his three politician sons, as well as entrepreneurs, bloggers, and physicians who advised the government during the pandemic.
The level of exposure of the president’s mistakes during the pandemic, including the denial of sanitary measures combined with his pushing for “initial” or “preventive” treatment with unproven drugs, together with delays in procuring vaccines (with strong signs of graft when belatedly procuring them through intermediaries), reached a peak on the day of the report presentation. Negative references to the president in social media reached 77%, the highest in the last 15 days according to a poll.
The report will be formally approved at committee level on 26 October. Following approval, it will be presented to head prosecutor Augusto Aras – a presidential ally and the only authority that can determine the future of charges involving a president. Aras can do one of two things: reject the charges or open an investigation to verify them. Such an investigation could already delay matters until after the October 2022 elections – or at least Aras could ensure that it did. The investigation could be fast-tracked, but it seems unlikely that it would be.
Even if the charges were expeditiously confirmed, the House of Representatives would still need to authorize the launching of proceedings at the Supreme Court (STF). The only variable here is whether the report could result in much more outcry than can so far be expected – in which case the lower chamber could perhaps change established views. Otherwise, it is difficult to see a two-thirds majority coalescing in the House (342 representatives) in support of the indictment.
There is talk of the CPI going to the Supreme Court directly, bypassing Aras. There is, however, great controversy as to whether the STF can launch an investigation ex officio – i.e., without being triggered by the head prosecutor. Former STF president, judge Dias Toffoli, authorized such an investigation in a case involving fake news and the defamation of members of the court in March 2019, but experts tend to agree that the act was unconstitutional. Considering the controversial character of such a precedent and Bolsonaro’s resilience in the polls despite six months of high-intensity media exposure, it is unlikely that the STF would move ex officio in the present case.
The CPI revealed much wrongdoing and implicated the president – which is bold and unusual. Most of the effect of the report will be, however, electoral, and not judicial. The president’s rejection ratings (already nearing 60%) may well increase as a result of the CPI report but Bolsonaro’s support base is unlikely to go below a core 25-30% of the population, with which Bolsonaro could still reach a run-off election. In that sense, Bolsonaro remains where he was prior to the CPI report: threatened primarily by worsening economic conditions that may indeed both eat away at his electoral margins and even alter his support base in Congress.