The 28th of October marked two years since the national elections that catapulted Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil. While the government took pains to show the work it has been doing throughout this period, emphasizing infrastructural projects, drug trafficking combat, and an agribusiness expansion, Brazilians are facing high COVID-19 infection rates and an unprecedented increase in deforestation and forest fires. With the municipal elections fast-approaching, Bolsonaro gave way to his initial stance against endorsing candidates running for mayor and city councillor – fearing that a potential loss might damage his own image – and publicly supported a few names, mostly in the country’s major cities. This about-turn, far from being an unorthodox political manoeuvre, is rather congruent with the president’s flexible approach to governance which appears to prioritise popularity and political alliances over policies and consistence.
As a populist leader, Bolsonaro successfully presented himself as an ‘anti-system’ candidate who could challenge the political and cultural elites and bring about an end to the ills that ravaged politics. Indeed, despite his long-standing political career, which begun in 1989, Bolsonaro not only managed to dissociate himself from the tainted image of a politician at a time when the country was shaken and vexed by the revelation of a series of corruption scandals, but by emphasizing his military past and inviting the reserve Army General, Hamilton Mourão, on his ticket, he effectively repositioned himself outside of the political establishment.
Yet two years after his election, Bolsonaro continues to behave as if he is outside of ‘the system’ and consistently distances himself from any event that does not appear favourable to his popularity. Determined to maintain the support of his most loyal ‘ideological’ base and expand his constituency beyond the groups that voted for him in 2018, the Brazilian president agilely acts to preserve his image as an outsider; someone who struggles to govern in earnest despite the many adversities and obstacles his enemies lay on his way. In his effort to forge an image of a down-to-earth honest ‘soldier’ working for his country and its people, Bolsonaro is quick to renege on decisions taken or avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of his own actions, preferring instead to blame others.
Bolsonaro’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. His initial attitude towards the new virus was to play down the risks and minimise its effect. ‘The worst is over’, he optimistically affirmed on 5 May. Yet the ‘little flu’ had far more devastating effects than the president was willing to admit, and, in large part due to the lack of effective nation-wide prevention policy, Brazil quickly became one of the global epicentres of its spread. Bolsonaro presented the Brazilian people with a false dilemma between saving lives and saving the economy. He chose the second, claiming that it was the only way forward since a large part of the population that works in the informal sector could not afford to stay home and self-isolate.
Instead, he fervently promoted chloroquine, an antimalarial drug with no proven efficacy against the coronavirus. An analysis of Bolsonaro’s posts on Twitter, between January and April 2020, found only two mentions of ‘social distancing’ and ‘confinement’ – the only effective measures of prevention available so far – while he twitted about the unproven ‘miraculous’ use of chloroquine 20 times. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were later made available in the public healthcare system (SUS) to be used for the treatment of COVID-19 with the mutual consent of a medical doctor and the patient. The president opted for a magic bullet, appearing to offer an instant solution to a complex problem, instead of risking protracted or less popular approaches with proven benefits.
The introduction of an emergency relief aid amid the pandemic not only contributed to the possibility of impeachment appearing rather remote, but rose Bolsonaro’s popularity to 40%
Such approaches were left to local authorities to decide. Mayors and governors could choose to implement social distancing measures as they saw fit. This led to a feud between the president and state governors which sent mixed messages to the population regarding quarantine measures and gave Bolsonaro the opportunity to place the blame for the catastrophic management of the pandemic and its dire economic repercussions on local authorities. When it was not the governors’ fault, it was the World Health Organisation’s or China’s. But it was never Bolsonaro’s.
At the same time, the president has been working hard to consolidate alliances in the Congress and the Federal Supreme Court. Receiving criticisms for his stance towards the pandemic and accused of participating in anti-democratic and anti-constitutional demonstrations, demands for the president’s impeachment were gaining traction in the first half of the year. In addition, Sergio Moro’s resignation accusing the president of obstructing justice and intending to interfere in the work of the federal police, shook the government’s internal dynamics and for a time practically monopolised public attention. Bolsonaro, who broke ranks with the party that brought him to power and currently remains unaffiliated, granted political favours to career politicians of a centre-right party cluster known as the Centrão, in an attempt to secure protection in the case of impeachment.
But a lot has changed since, including the introduction of an emergency relief aid paid to unemployed and informal workers, which not only contributed to the possibility of impeachment appearing rather remote, but rose Bolsonaro’s popularity to 40% – nearly as high as at the beginning of his term in office. Meanwhile, his decision to appoint Kássio Nunes Marques to the Supreme Court outraged his ‘ideological’ base which expected to see a ‘hard-line’ conservative Christian in Nunes Marques’s place. In an attempt to appease their discontent, Bolsonaro reminded his supporters that he would soon be appointing a second judge, promised that this time it would finally be someone ‘terribly evangelical’ as he had promised, and – in a messianic tone – asked them to trust him even if they did not agree with him or understand his motivations.
Bolsonaro has thrown Brazil on a perpetual campaign trail which threatens to shrink the democratic space for disagreement and dialogue and trivialise intolerance
In what often appears as a never-ending electoral campaign, Bolsonaro is constantly nodding to issues that animate his base – as when he spoke of ‘Christianphobia’ (Cristofobia) in his UNGA address earlier this year – keeping his constituency engaged, but also quickly responds to their demands. While he did not withdraw his decision to appoint Nunes Marques to the Supreme Court – a decision favourably seen as moderate by a large part of the political class – he publicly discredited the Minister of Health, Lieutenant General Eduardo Pazuello, after the latter announced an agreement between the federal government and the state of São Paulo to buy 46 million shots of the CoronaVac vaccine, currently developed by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac and produced in Brazil by the Butantan Institute. ‘I already had it cancelled’, Bolsonaro said, in an attempt to reassure his ‘ideological base’ that no ‘Chinese vaccine’ would be bought under his watch, fusing his vehement anti-communist rhetoric into government policies for combating the pandemic.
However, Bolsonaro is not only trying to please his less or more consolidated base but is actively engaged in appealing to different socio-economic segments of the population that may help to re-elect him in 2022. Bolsonaro’s popularity has grown especially in the South and Northeast regions, the latter being his traditional opposition stronghold. The 600 BRL (approx. 90 Euros) monthly emergency relief aid, which the government only reluctantly introduced and had initially insisted on keeping at 200 BRL (approx. 30 Euros), significantly improved living conditions in the most economically underprivileged areas of Brazil, and helped increase the president’s approval rate among those who earn up to one minimum salary.
The president’s revamped relation with the Northeast is reflected on his frequent visits to the region, documented in detail on his social media. While he tries to win northeasterners and leave behind a history of prejudiced declarations against the region and its people, however, his efforts often appear clumsy. In a recent visit to Maranhão, whose communist governor, Flávio Dino, Bolsonaro is known to dislike, the president sparked yet another controversy by making an homophobic joke associating the pink colour of a popular maranhense soda drink to being gay. Dino promised to sue the president who later apologised for the ‘innocent’ joke he made, suggesting that he was (once again) misunderstood.
Navigating an extremely difficult political conjuncture to with an eye to the 2022 presidential elections may prove to be a strategy advantageous to Bolsonaro’s bid for re-election; it may also be detrimental to the country’s democratic stability. With differences morphing into polarisation, the continuous electoral campaign is fostering an intensification of radical political positioning, an urge to take a stance either ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. A cold-war era style anti-communist witch hunt, which powerfully emerged during president Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment and intensified during the 2018 presidential campaign, continues to be of relevance in the ‘permanent radicalisation’ Bolsonaro’s never-ending campaign is relying on, alongside such issues as traditional family structure, conservative Christian values, and a ‘patriotism’ that dubs any dissent anti-patriotic.
Bolsonaro has thrown Brazil on a perpetual campaign trail which threatens to shrink the democratic space for disagreement and dialogue and trivialise intolerance. Against a hostile political climate, Brazilian democratic institutions must continue to battle against their erosion from within and prove they are stronger than the challenges they are currently facing.