Brazil’s political institutions clash over COVID response


Brazil recently surpassed a grim statistic: 100,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus, which barrels on in the second worst outbreak in the world. Under increasing pressure at home — over 30 impeachment motions have been introduced by opponents in Congress — President Jair Bolsonaro has doubled down on his battle against Brazil’s other branches of government. Economic recession, populist rhetoric, and the pandemic context have left many fearing for Brazil’s long-term political stability. 

The political clash over COVID-19 has polarized Brazil’s politics further and exacerbated longstanding institutional fragilities. While Bolsonaro has expressed skepticism of the dangers of COVID-19, touted the as-yet-unconfirmed benefits of hydroxychloroquine, and generally advocated the country remain open, 25 out of 27 state governments defied these orders in some manner.

Bolsonaro responded with reprisals against state governors and sought to turn local populations against them, going so far as to say that governors would be solely at fault for any economic decline. Meanwhile, Brazil has had the Minister of Health position filled by an acting official for over 50 days — two of Brazil’s health ministers resigned in rapid succession over Bolsonaro’s policy approach to COVID-19 — while coronavirus infections in the country have surged.

People hold crosses as they attend a tribute to the 100 thousand mortal victims of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and a protest against Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

In his battle to dominate the political narrative, Bolsonaro has taken aim at both Congress and the courts, especially Brazil’s Supreme Court. In April, he joined a demonstration calling for a military intervention to shut down Congress and lift coronavirus-related quarantines. While this rhetoric is deeply alarming for any young democracy, it touches on a larger trend in Brazilian politics.

As political scientists Livia Lopes and Jonathan Madison point out in a recent paper, Brazil’s electoral system, featuring a plethora of ideologically amorphous parties and thus weak party identification, often engenders divergent constituencies and motivations for the choice of legislative and executive powers.

This has led several presidents in Brazil’s democratic era to engage in corruption to hold together multi-party congressional coalitions, or even to seek extralegal solutions to the challenge of governing and transforming the country. In this vein, Bolsonaro appears an exception only in the extreme nature of his maneuvers.

Bolsonaro now finds himself fending off a number of investigations proceeding in the Supreme Court. Stemming from his 2018 presidential campaign, he faces allegations that his campaign coordinated with private businesses to disseminate disinformation about his opponent through social media. The president has responded by attempting to obstruct the Federal Police from carrying out searches and seizures of those allegedly involved.

To make matters worse, Bolsonaro’s star Minister of Justice, Sérgio Mororesigned in late April over allegations of an improper attempt to interfere in corruption investigations, including an effort to shield his own sons by installing a friend as the head of the Federal Police. Lacking Moro in his cabinet while myriad allegations swirl around him, Bolsonaro risks losing a major factor in his electoral appeal — the fight to root out Brazil’s systemic corruption.

In retaliation of the Supreme Court’s probe into his family, Bolsonaro has argued that the institution should be put in its proper place or disbanded altogether. Several of his most rabid supporters even shot fireworks at the Supreme Court to simulate a bombing. Bolsonaro’s former outspoken Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub, resigned after fanning the flames of this clash by participating in protests against the Supreme Court and stating that the justices should be jailed at a cabinet meeting.(Weintraub recently absconded from Brazil to assume a controversial appointment as an Executive Director at the World Bank.) Brazil’s Supreme Court fired back by forcing Facebook and Twitter to block the accounts of more than a dozen individuals accused of spreading falsehoods about Supreme Court justices.

Perhaps most concerning, Bolsonaro joined a May protest in Brasilia where supporters called for a military coup. After surveilling the crowd from a helicopter, he strode among his supporters on horseback, reprising rhetoric from his presidential campaign in favor of Brazil’s military regime and reiterating the conceit that Brazil was a more peaceful, prosperous country under military rule.

In many ways, Brazil’s institutional clash could get even hotter. The Supreme Court’s investigations are only in their nascence. Should they lead to a trial, Bolsonaro could be required to leave the presidency for 180 days to act as a defendant. This would likely trigger a deeper crisis as his supporters rally to prevent him from stepping down for six months.

However, few observers expect any sudden moves in Brazil. Predictions of military intervention on Bolsonaro’s behalf or a full-blown return to Brazil’s erstwhile military regime are overwrought. Rather, Brazil appears to be entering a path of institutional decay, as Bolsonaro mobilizes supporters (both in-person and an “army of hate” online) and reduces public confidence in institutions before eventually vitiating them.

Learn more: Brazil and coronavirus | Brazil’s Workers’ Party has an organized crime problem in the making | The governance competition in the Americas: ‘Criminal charity’ during COVID-19 will have decade-long consequences

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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