Brazil is suffering a brutal rise in COVID-19 deaths as a highly contagious strain of the virus spreads throughout the country. In Brazil, COVID-19 patients occupy 90% of ICU beds while state and municipal leaders ask for federal measures to combat the pandemic and, internationally, the World Health Organisation (“WHO”) highlights the risk that Brazil can become a threat to the international community.
President Jair Bolsonaro’s approval rating keeps falling and has dropped below 30% for the first time. On 8 April 2021 the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the Senate to open a parliamentary inquiry to investigate the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bolsonaro, currently without a political affiliation, has become hugely dependent on the “centrao” political parties: organisations based on patronage practices which do not have an ideological agenda and, thus, trade legislative support for public offices. These parties are still able to block the 111 impeachment requests that Bolsonaro was facing by 9 April 2021.
With COVID-19 infections and deaths soaring the centrao parties pressured Bolsonaro to replace the former army general Eduardo Pazuello as Minister of Health. On 16 March 2021, Bolsonaro appointed cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga, who became his fourth Health Minister in a year. Queiroga, a cardiologist who served as president of the Brazilian Society of Cardiology, said that he would remain above ideology but rejected the imposition of a national lockdown and favoured a more efficient vaccination rollout plan.
On 30 March 2021, Bolsonaro replaced six cabinet ministers in an effort to halt the deterioration of his political capital. A Brazilian foreign relations Professor explained, “The Cabinet reshuffle was the result of Bolsonaro coming to terms with his own weaknesses. It all started when the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo, locked horns with the Congress in a dispute he lost and which led to his resignation. The departure of Araújo, one of Bolsonaro’s staunchest ideological allies, was a major concern to the president who wanted to show that he still held power over his Cabinet by replacing three military ministers. His move spectacularly backfired with the resignation of the military higher ranks.”
The military’s support of Bolsonaro is based on ideological principles and an opportunistic self-preservation agenda. The army originally saw in Bolsonaro an ally in opposition to former Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) and Dilma Vana Rousseff. At the same time, they considered Bolsonaro’s military discourse as the best way to maintain the 6,000 military members holding government jobs in the country.
A political analyst explained why there are such a large number of military members in government offices, “Bolsonaro is not stupid. Despite the recent fallout with the military, Bolsonaro’s new cabinet is still the most militarised cabinet in Brazilian democratic history and it has more active official members than some [Brazilian] governments had during the dictatorship. Bolsonaro knows that, by law, the military has to be loyal to the president. So, having them close is a way of controlling them and policymaking while at the same time using them to intimidate Congress.”
“Bolsonaro is not stupid. Despite the recent fallout with the military, Bolsonaro’s new cabinet is still the most militarised cabinet in Brazilian democratic history […] Bolsonaro knows that, by law, the military has to be loyal to the president.”
Political analyst, Brazil
The director of a lobbying firm in Brasilia gave further insight into the military connection, “The Brazilian army is not a homogeneous entity. It is mostly divided between a group of cold-headed generals afraid of losing the privileges of their power and younger lower ranks who are supportive of Bolsonaro. However, the president misread his power vis-à-vis army generals thinking he was in control of the institution when the reality is that the support of the military was key to his 2018 electoral victory.”
Bolsonaro’s declining popularity has led to speculation that former President Lula will run for president in 2022, if the judiciary will let him. A former Brazilian diplomat commented, “Lula’s corruption conviction was suspended by the Supreme Court. Although a polarising figure, Lula continues to be extremely popular with many Brazilians. He will try everything to run in 2022.”
“Lula’s corruption conviction was suspended by the Supreme Court. Although a polarising figure, Lula continues to be extremely popular with many Brazilians. He will try everything to run in 2022.”
Former diplomat, Brazil
The presidential campaign will start next June with the prospect of a Bolsonaro-Lula battle intoxicating all debates and leaving no room for centrist candidates. Since the suspension of Lula’s conviction, reported presidential candidates such as São Paulo state governor Joao Doria, TV host Luciano Huck, and former minister of National Integration Ciro Gomes are re-evaluating their options.
“[Giro Gomes’] chances of making it to the second round look meagre, but if he gets that far he could do well against a polarising figure like Lula or Bolsonaro.”
Director, lobbying firm, Brazil
As the lobbyist explained, “Luciano Huck [a Globo TV presenter] is still young and will not risk participating against Lula at the cost of sacrificing his media contracts [Globo affirmed that if Huck ran for president he would not be readmitted to the group]. Joao Doria will likely re-run for São Paulo’s state governorship and wait for 2026. Ciro Gomes portrays himself like a Brazilian Joe Biden. His chances of making it to the second round look meagre, but if he gets that far he could do well against a polarising figure like Lula or Bolsonaro.”
It appears that Bolsonaro will see out the remainder of his term without an impeachment which turns all attention to the Presidential elections in 2022. A Bolsonaro vs Lula head-to-head is a fascinating prospect but will either deliver a good result for Brazil?