Brazil’s next presidential election is 13 months away, but already President Jair Bolsonaro has set out on a path that puts him on a collision course with democracy. With every passing day and every new dismal opinion poll, Bolsonaro sounds more like a man who, in the mold of his idol, former U.S. President Donald Trump, is prepared to put his personal political fortune ahead of the country’s democracy and stability.
Last weekend, in a meeting with Brazilian evangelical leaders, Bolsonaro melodramatically remarked that he sees three possibilities for his future: “being arrested, killed or victory.” He then added that the first, arrest, is off the table despite multiple investigations into his conduct while in office because, he said, “No man on Earth will threaten me.”
The speech, widely disseminated, sparked a sometimes-ghoulish debate among his critics on social media over which option is preferable.
The controversial far-right president already had a close encounter with the second possibility when a would-be assassin nearly killed him during his 2018 presidential campaign.
He wasn’t stopped then, and Bolsonaro seems determined to defy the odds again. For months, he has been reprising the Trumpian pre-election playbook, claiming that electronic voting, a firmly established and highly regarded practice in Brazil, is rife with fraud. He demanded that Congress outlaw the practice and threatened to cancel the election or reject the outcome otherwise. By repeatedly raising doubts about the credibility of the process, Bolsonaro is setting the stage for rejecting the outcome, as Trump did and continues to do with regard to his defeat in 2020.
There was never much of a chance Congress would agree with Bolsonaro. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. The president’s preemptive undermining of the vote prompted election authorities to ask for a Supreme Court investigation into whether he was committing a crime by attacking democracy and the electoral system.
Infuriated by yet another investigation against him, Bolsonaro lashed out at the court. “I play within the four lines of the Constitution,” he said, before adding ominously, “if necessary, I play with the gun on the other side.” Some wondered if the former army captain, who has expressed admiration for the country’s former military dictatorships, is thinking about a military coup or some other armed action.
Last Friday, speaking to reporters, he declared, “Everyone has to buy a rifle, damn it! Armed people will never be enslaved.” Then, in a dismissive acknowledgement of the hunger and poverty that have returned to Brazil in recent months, he suggested that a gun is more important than food, saying, “I know [the rifle] costs a lot. An idiot says, ‘Ah, what you have to buy is beans.’”
The instances of graft are particularly damaging to Bolsonaro because he ran in 2018 on a promise to end the country’s endemic corruption.
The quest for food, as it happens, has become one of the many crises besetting the Brazilian people—and Bolsonaro’s prospects for reelection.
The World Food Program, which had removed Brazil from its “Hunger Map” back in 2014, is warning that hunger has returned. It calculated that half of Brazil’s 212 million people face some level of food insecurity, and nearly one in 10 is going hungry, enough to put the country back on the WFP’s map.
At least part of the reason for the disaster is Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. From the start, he downplayed the threat, claiming Brazilians had some sort of unique immunity because they can swim in sewage-polluted waters. He participated in rallies against coronavirus restrictions and, not surprisingly, contracted COVID-19.
As Bolsonaro went through a series of health ministers, the pandemic raged and Brazil ended up with one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates.
The mismanagement was so crass that Congress launched an investigation into the president’s handling of the crisis. The probe is already uncovering potential malfeasance, further eroding Bolsonaro’s chances for reelection.
Congressional and media investigations have uncovered multiple instances of what look like corrupt schemes in vaccine purchasing. One of Bolsonaro’s former health ministers, Eduardo Pazuello, allegedly negotiated with an intermediary for the purchase of 30 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine at nearly triple the market price. Another administration official tasked with buying Astra Zeneca vaccines reportedly kept a slice of the price for himself.
The instances of graft are particularly damaging to Bolsonaro because he ran in 2018 on a promise to end the country’s endemic corruption. Even before the pandemic, prosecutors charged his son Flavio, a senator, with embezzlement. The younger Bolsonaro was allegedly pocketing some of the money for his staff’s salaries when he was a state legislator in Rio de Janeiro.
For the president, the mounting crises and increasingly damning investigations mean that he faces not only the threat of rejection by voters, but also the very real possibility he could be impeached and removed from office, as was the previous elected president, Dilma Rousseff.
To shore up his defenses in Congress, he’s trying a new strategy, aiming to build ties with political parties he previously belittled. He has just named a new chief of staff, Ciro Nogueira of the center-right Progressive Party. Nogueira says he plans to restart the social support program that had helped Brazilians survive during the earlier months of the pandemic. When Bolsonaro implemented it last year, it surprised observers by giving him a huge boost in the polls despite his pandemic shenanigans. When the anti-poverty measures wound down, Bolsonaro’s standing collapsed. There’s a chance that reinstating the plan could revive his fortunes.
For now, however, the polls show Bolsonaro far behind former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who would crush the incumbent in the first round by more than 20 points if the voting were to take place today.
The leftist Lula, 75, has not formally announced he will run, but if, as expected, he does, he would be a formidable candidate no matter what else happens between now and Oct. 2, 2022.
For Brazilians unhappy with choosing between a leftist and a rightist candidate, a number of centrist Brazilian politicians are testing the waters, looking to position themselves to win their parties’ nomination once the primaries start and preparing to compete as the “neither Bolsonaro nor Lula” option. Among them are some well-known names, including Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Party, who has run for president three times; Joan Doria, governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state; and Sergio Moro, the man once viewed as the heroic prosecutor in the Lava Jato investigation, who later joined the Bolsonaro administration and went through his own Shakespearean arc. That’s just a few of the possible contenders.
In the end, however, the focus remains on Bolsonaro, and his impending head-on clash with Brazilian democracy.