A Cornered Bolsonaro Is Bad News for Brazil’s Democracy

A Cornered Bolsonaro Is Bad News for Brazil’s Democracy
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, fourth from right, flanked by Vice President Hamilton Mourao, left, and then-Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo, in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 20, 2021 (AP photo by Eraldo Peres).

Facing his most severe political crisis since taking office in 2019, Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, resorted to a broad reshuffle of his Cabinet last week, giving more of a voice to center-right parties in order to shore up his support and reduce the risk of impeachment while ousting three military commanders whom he considered insufficiently loyal. As Brazil heads into a perfect storm—an out-of-control pandemic combined with economic collapse and growing political discontent—Bolsonaro appears to be surrounding himself with loyalists who are willing to protect him and his four sons, all of whom are under investigation for crimes ranging from embezzlement of public funds to nepotism and money-laundering. This could have troubling implications for Bolsonaro’s political fortunes and, more importantly, for Brazil’s democracy.

Bolsonaro had been on the defensive in recent weeks, since the unexpected Supreme Court ruling that annulled the convictions of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, all but ensuring his participation in next year’s presidential election. Lula, as the popular leftist is commonly known, had been seen as a favorite in the 2018 contest before he was disqualified due to his prior conviction on corruption charges, clearing the way for Bolsonaro’s victory. While opposition parties have been largely fragmented and disoriented in the face of Bolsonaro’s Trumpian strategy of producing a round-the-clock mixture of entertainment and scandal, Lula immediately seized the initiative, using his first speech after the Supreme Court ruling last month to lambast Bolsonaro’s “moronic” handling of the pandemic.

The result was indeed remarkable: within days of the speech, Bolsonaro appeared in front of TV cameras wearing a mask—after months of ridiculing the practice—and even encouraged people to get vaccinated, despite having suggested that it could lead women to grow beards and men to speak in “effeminate” voices. After Lula said that he, as president, would have created a national committee to address the pandemic, Bolsonaro promptly created one. When Lula asked U.S. President Joe Biden for help to combat COVID-19 in Brazil, Bolsonaro released a letter he had received three weeks earlier from Biden, whose election victory over Donald Trump he had long refused to recognize. Bolsonaro’s recent Cabinet reshuffle was no doubt motivated to some extent by a desire to shift the narrative and deflect the pressure from Lula—a case in point of how an attentive and disciplined opposition can check those in power.

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