The unspooling of Bolsonaro’s reign begins
In his generation-defining classic, “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway has a real-world answer as to how people go bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.” This illuminates nothing less than the core principle of political risk analysis. Major trends are there, first unseen, and then dramatically exposed.
As is true for bankruptcy, so it is with political power. For a while now, it has been clear that the rightist, populist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is out of his depth over myriad issues that are hamstringing his presidency. While this was anecdotally clear to many, the structural nature of his problems, their depth and extent, were not much thought about. But crises clarify. And, in the white-hot flame of the coronavirus, the “Three C’s” endemically plaguing the populist leader — competence, competition, and corruption — have dramatically morphed into an existential threat to his continued rule.
First, the coronavirus scandal has brought to light and highlighted the many instances of Bolsonaro’s erratic and amateurish approach to governance, calling his basic competence into real question. Due to his persistent denial of both the virus’s sensitivity and scope, plus an outrageous indifference to the wider suffering it has caused, Bolsonaro has placed himself on the political defensive. This has been symbolized more than anything else by his personal refusal to abide by the terms of social distancing; making clear his disdain for any efforts at responsible quarantine.
On April 28, when told of the worsening crisis numbers in Brazil, the president defiantly replied in politically tone deaf terms: “So what? I’m sorry, what do you want me to do?” To put it mildly, this is hardly fulfilling the presidential role as consoler-in-chief. Rather, Bolsonaro seems preoccupied with how the virus may be hurting him politically, rather than how his country is suffering.
Taken to task for a lack of social distancing (and overall seriousness) by the popular Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, on April 16 the Brazilian president snapped, firing him for no real reason other than personal pique.
Beyond his narcissistic response to the coronavirus question, there is little doubt that the Brazilian economy, like every other in the world, will be hobbled by the lockdown measures that have been haphazardly put in place. With gross domestic product (GDP) growth of just 1 percent in 2019, the country was looking forward to a period of economic upturn. That is now just a wistful memory, as economic forecasts (growing ever gloomier) have Brazil’s GDP set to plummet by at least 5 percent this year. Unemployment, already stubbornly over 11 percent before the crisis began, will grow substantially worse. Any economic windfall, and the political boost such success would have given Bolsonaro, disappeared with the onset of the crisis. What remains is a lingering and growing question of the president’s overall competence.
The second “C,” competition, has now come into play too. Bolsonaro has long benefited from not having any serious rival in his right-wing camp — a fact that has abruptly just changed. At the end of April, Sergio Moro, the wildly popular justice minister who oversaw the “Operation Car Wash” trials that defenestrated a generation of corrupt Brazilian politicians, suddenly and electrifyingly resigned from the government. Long more popular than Bolsonaro in polling, Moro’s presence in the populist, rightist government amounted to a general political seal of approval for more hesitant, moderate conservatives that the Bolsonaro government would behave responsibly and could be trusted. With Moro’s sudden and vitriolic departure, Bolsonaro’s governing coalition has begun to crumble, as a powerful new rightist rival in Moro has emerged to challenge the president’s leadership itself.
But it was the dramatic reason for Moro’s departure that has done the Brazilian president the most damage, exposing him to the third “C” of corruption. For Moro alleged, in his resignation speech, that he was quitting the government due to Bolsonaro’s sacking of Mauricio Valeixo, the director-general of the country’s federal police, in order to impose a more pliable chief who would share with him secret intelligence reports.
The direct reason for this is that at least two of Bolsonaro’s sons are under ever-increasing legal pressure. Investigators have reportedly been closing in on Carlos Bolsonaro for running a fake news racket that is engaged in threatening and defaming the family’s enemies. Another of the president’s sons, Flavio, has been under police scrutiny for suspected corruption and ties to Rio de Janeiro’s mafia.
At the end of April, the Brazilian Supreme Court dramatically entered the fray, approving a formal investigation into allegations that the president has illegally attempted to interfere with the federal police. As Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello damningly put it: “The president of the republic… is also subject to the laws, just like any other of the country’s citizens.”
Unsurprisingly, the corruption charges have caused the president’s popularity to plummet. An end of April poll by Folha De S. Paulo found that nearly half of all Brazilians want Bolsonaro to resign, skyrocketing from only 37 percent just a month earlier.
But if the “Three C’s” explain why Bolsonaro is on the ropes, the “Three B’s” point out the road to his political salvation. Much of the president’s enduring and rock-solid political base is clustered around three groups: Agribusiness (beef), the military (bullets), and the growing number of Brazilian evangelical Christians (the Bible). It is striking that, despite Bolsonaro’s miserable handling of the “Three C’s,” none of these groups have wavered in their steadfast support. As long as this remains the case, Bolsonaro, though embattled, is probably in no immediate danger of impeachment.
Most worrying in democratic terms is the Bolsonaro government’s overly close ties to the military. At the end of March 2019, on the 55th anniversary of the 1964 military coup that propelled a junta to 21 years of brutal rule, Bolsonaro — himself a former army captain — infuriated human rights victims of the dictatorship by celebrating the anniversary. Nor are the regime’s close ties to the armed forces merely symbolic: Fully nine of the government’s 22 Cabinet posts are filled by ex-generals. This unhealthy linkage allows for the specter that, should Bolsonaro be about to be toppled, continued extra-constitutional military support for his embattled regime is not out of the question, as it should be.
Bolsonaro seems preoccupied with how the virus may be hurting him politically, rather than how his country is suffering.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
Bolsonaro has the fervent support of a vocal, very loyal minority of the country, but a cohort large enough to presently comfortably shield him from impeachment, as the agribusiness, military and evangelical rungs of his power base hold steady.
The Folha De S. Paulo poll confirms that the president has core support of about 33 percent, while the lower house of parliament finds the right with some 210 delegates, as opposed to the left’s 134. A Datafolha survey of April 17 found that 36 percent of those polled (in defiance of the objective facts) still rated Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus as “great” or “good,” while a strong majority of 59 percent (in an April 20 follow-up poll) still believed Bolsonaro should not resign. For the present, despite everything, the “Three B’s” are still firmly protecting the president.
But, as Hemingway wisely noted about bankruptcy, bad things start slowly and then dramatically escalate. While the “Three B’s” are protecting Bolsonaro from impeachment and his power base is presently holding, none of the “Three C’s” have been remotely dealt with. As time passes and these structural problems turn increasingly septic, what seems a slow unspooling of the Brazilian president at present may well suddenly become a torrent that washes him away.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.