Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, faces the most significant threat yet to his hold on power. With the country on route to becoming the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might think that the spiralling rate of infections and fatalities is what threatens his presidency. You would be wrong. While criticism of his colossal mishandling of the pandemic is mounting, the president and several family members could soon be heading to jail for entirely different reasons.
The scope of the President's alleged misdeeds are breathtaking. Bolsonaro is facing no fewer than 35 depositions for his impeachment and is being investigated by the supreme court, the electoral commission and Congress for over 20 separate alleged crimes. His three sons are also under investigation for everything from money laundering to dissemination of hate and fake news.
When Bolsonaro was elected in late 2018, some of his elite supporters hoped that his authoritarian impulses would be tamed by his cabinet, especially his neo-liberal finance minister, corruption-fighting justice minister and a host of conservative generals. If that failed, the experts were convinced that the legislature and judiciary would bring stability to the government. No such luck. Moderates were jettisoned and polarization intensified, poisoning the democratic process.
COVID-19 is accelerating trends already underway everywhere, including the dismantling of Brazilian democracy. The expectations that the country's fragile system of checks and balances could moderate the president and his family were unfounded. Moreover, Bolsonaro and his partners in government are dismantling systems of accountability. From the moment he assumed office he has played constitutional hardball and harassed and intimidated any who would oppose him, including his own ministers.
The president and his administration now face three possible scenarios in the coming weeks and months.
First, Bolsonaro could be convicted of one of several crimes of which he stands accused and ousted from the presidency. He would be severely censured and stripped of his immunity, opening the way for criminal investigations and possibly imprisonment. Were that to happen, investigations of his sons and other family members would move ahead more rapidly than they already are. Depending on how things unfold, the vice president or an interim government would take control paving the way to new elections. Democracy would hold on by its fingernails.
Second, with help from his government supporters, Bolsonaro and his family could survive the litany of accusations and emerge even more powerful than before. Emboldened, they would continue to avoid legitimate scrutiny, shore up their political base, expand digital and physical attacks against their opponents and advance the assault on Brazil's wounded democracy. Against a rapidly deteriorating economy, the coming elections in 2022 would be the most bitterly contested in the country's history, with social unrest and collective violence a real possibility.
A third scenario, and one that is becoming more dangerously likely by the day, is that Bolsonaro would resort to violence to hold on to power should there be any moves to oust him democratically. The threats to the president are steadily mounting. His core supporters are agitating for armed resistance, and even military intervention to keep their commander-in-chief in power. The president has urged his most ardent supporters to protest against mayors, governors and other public servants who support COVID-19 prevention measures. A group of militant retired military officers even threatened civil war if investigations against the president proceed.
Polished videos are circulating in social media and on WhatsApp groups exhorting armed citizens to reclaim their rights and take action against "enemies" of the state, including leftists, atheists, homosexuals and minorities.
The president seems to be gunning for the second scenario, while preparing for the third. And not without good reason. The so-called Bolsonaristas - the militant hardliners who form his base - have his back. They even created a hashtag #intervencaomilitarcombolsonaro (#militaryinterventionwithbolsonaro) - to rally the troops. Polished videos are circulating in social media and on WhatsApp groups exhorting armed citizens to reclaim their rights and take action against "enemies" of the state, including leftists, atheists, homosexuals and minorities. In a recently released recording of a cabinet meeting the president insinuated that his armed supporters would defend him to the end.
When defying COVID-19 lockdown orders to glad-hand his supporters, Bolsonaro is circulating messages to get them into the street to protest his own government's lock-down measures. Since early 2019 he has rushed-through no less than 10 decrees and bills to loosen gun availability, with hundreds of thousands of firearms now circulating in what is already the world's most violent country. The president’s recently deposed justice minister, Sergio Moro, confirmed that these measures could incentivize “armed rebellion” against the lockdown measures proposed by local officials.
Bolsonaro recently tweeted a video clip of Charlton Heston's infamous "from my cold dead hands" speech. It is one thing for a faded Hollywood actor to wave his fist in defiance, it is quite another when the messenger is the president of the world's fourth largest democracy.
The risk of Brazil descending into violent unrest is still distant, but growing. The country's democracy is being pushed to the breaking point. If Bolsonaro and his clan hangs on, as they might well do, it could tip it over the edge. Brazilians would do well to take note, and take action, before it is too late.