Brazil’s nightmare

We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about Donald Trump’s performance during the Covid-19 crisis and its effect upon his political fortunes. There’s been less publicity for another president of a very large American country – but that’s starting to change, with increasing focus on the remarkable story of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

There’s no question that in health terms Brazil is shaping as a major disaster. It has now hit second place for number of coronavirus cases, approaching 400,000; ahead of Russia and behind (well behind) only the United States. Yesterday it recorded 1,039 deaths in 24 hours (more than the US), taking its death toll to more than 24,000.

As I said, Brazil is a big country, so in per capita terms that’s still some way down the list, but it’s rising fast with little sign that transmission of the virus is under control. And as in the US, but apparently with even more justification, the president is being widely blamed for the disaster.

Bolsonaro has all of Trump’s blustering ignorance, but with a greater willingness to put it into practice. Instead of just remaining in front of the TV or talking to the media, he has gone out to rallies with his supporters, disregarding spatial distancing and encouraging them to do the same. Like Trump, he is also a big promoter of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

The parallels don’t end there. Bolsonaro is also losing political support as a result; even mayors and state governors who would otherwise be politically sympathetic have defied him on the health front. As in both the US and Australia, federalism has proved to be a life saver.

There are important differences, however, between the Brazilian and US political environments. Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018, which means he is less than halfway through his four-year term. So while US politics is dominated by the impending election in November, Bolsonaro has on the surface less to worry about in terms of his immediate future.

But appearances may be deceptive. Trump’s impeachment earlier this year produced an unsurprising acquittal; no US president has ever been removed by that method (although one resigned rather than put it to the test). But Brazil’s previous elected president, Dilma Rousseff, was convicted and removed from office just four years ago.

When Bolsonaro took office, he appointed as his justice minister Sérgio Moro, the judge who had headed the corruption investigation – known as Operation Car Wash – that indirectly led to Rousseff’s impeachment. Last month Moro resigned in protest against Bolsonaro’s interference with law enforcement, hinting that the president was trying to protect his own family from corruption charges.

Bolsonaro has also lost two health ministers in as many months: the first was sacked in April after persistent disagreements over isolation measures; his replacement resigned a few weeks later. So Bolsonaro’s political base appears to be fracturing in a way that Trump’s is not, in a system that is more volatile to start with.

The key thing to appreciate here is the nature of that base. Bolsonaro, unlike Trump, was elected with a majority of the vote, but that’s not the big difference. Trump operated within an entrenched two-party system: he won by taking over one of the existing parties, building on his committed supporters to win its primaries, and then relying on ordinary loyal Republicans to provide most of his backing in the general election.

Bolsonaro faced a fluid multi-party system. Instead of a primary campaign, his path to victory involved starting with a small party, the misnamed Social Liberal Party, and using it as a personal vehicle to build profile ahead of the first round in a two-round election. Once he became the leading candidate on the right of the spectrum, centre-right voters rallied to him. In the runoff against a centre-left candidate, he won with 55.1%.

But that didn’t reflect any underlying strength of his party. In the congressional elections held at the same time it won only 11.7% of the vote. And in due course Bolsonaro broke with it anyway and now heads a new group, “Alliance for Brazil”.

So Trump has a solid band of Republican politicians and officials who stick with him not out of any personal loyalty but because he represents their party, and the only serious alternative is to defect to the Democrats. Bolsonaro took advantage of a similar dynamic to win – conventional centre-right politicians preferred him to the left – but it’s not able to sustain him in office in the same way.

That means that although Bolsonaro has a bloc of congressional support that in the past was able to deliver him a majority, it depends on a dozen or so different parties working together. Even in normal times that offered no guarantee, and these are emphatically not normal times.

For the moment the very magnitude of the health crisis imposes a degree of national unity. But if that breaks – and the president is certainly doing very little to hold it together – Brazil could find itself in a major political crisis as well.

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