Corruption inquiries, a spreading Covid-19 crisis, plunging popularity and persistent bouts of hiccups. Brazil’s scandal-plagued President Jair Bolsonaro just can’t seem to catch a break.
The President said he’s now feeling “100% well” after his recent health scare, a consequence he says of a failed assassination attempt in 2018, telling TV Brasil, “If God wishes, I’ll fulfill this mission until the last day.”
But that last day may come sooner than expected, with a majority of Brazilians for the first time in favor of lawmakers launching impeachment proceedings against their controversial leader, according to recent polling.
While impeachment is far from certain, a poll by Datafolha found 54% of Brazilians support a proposed move by lawmakers to open impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro. The July poll also found 51% of Brazilians considered the Bolsonaro presidency “bad” or “awful.”
Bolsonaro’s government has been implicated in corruption allegations, resulting in a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the country is struggling through the devastating impact of its haphazard response to Covid-19.
There have been nearly 20 million cases of the virus reported in Brazil, according to the Johns Hopkins University database, ranking it third in the world after the United States and India. The death toll has topped 544,000 and there continue to be more than a thousand deaths each day. Only around 16% of the population is vaccinated.
Bolsonaro has been at the center of the storm, having downplayed the gravity of the virus from the beginning. This week, the President criticized governors for taking restrictive measures to contain the spread.
“Many governors have closed everything. They have destroyed jobs, especially informal ones. We have around 38 million people in Brazil who live from day to day, who work in the morning to eat at night,” he said. “They have lost everything. If there wasn’t emergency aid by the federal government, these people would be condemned to starvation.”
The so-called “Trump of the tropics” has also targeted the media.
During an interview with public network TV Brasil on Tuesday, Bolsonaro criticized the Brazilian press and congratulated his government’s handling of the pandemic.
“I have a clear conscience,” Bolsonaro said. “Brazil is one of the countries that has best behaved during the pandemic, period. Congratulations to Brazil. I thank my team of 22 ministers.”
In July 2020, Bolsonaro announced he tested positive for Covid-19, following months of downplaying the virus. He and his government have resisted lockdown measures and mask-wearing. Angry citizens, political adversaries and overwhelmed local officials have pressed Bolsonaro for more federal action, even as he has publicly shrugged off those concerns.
Corruption investigations and inquiries
The Brazilian Senate inquiry into the government’s response may hobble Bolsonaro’s reelection bid if it leads to an impeachment proceeding or criminal charges.
While those outcomes are considered by political analysts to be unlikely, Bolsonaro’s future may depend on his ability to keep the peace with lawmakers responsible for such proceedings.
Senate opposition leader Randolfe Rodrigues said what started as an investigation into omissions and misconduct has now turned into a corruption inquiry.
The accusations include claims Bolsonaro and his government sabotaged isolation measures, threatened governors and mayors who applied restrictive measures, and refused to wear masks or encourage their use. Brazilians have taken to the streets in large numbers to demand a better response.
The inquiry has also uncovered explosive claims from a witness that Bolsonaro was warned a proposed vaccine deal was padded with extra cash for corrupt officials. The Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (CPI) has opened an investigation over the deal to purchase 20 million doses of the Indian-made Covaxin vaccines, for 1,000% more than the initial quoted price.
Congressman Luis Miranda, a former ally of Bolsonaro, and his brother Luis Ricardo Miranda, a Ministry of Health employee, said they warned the President of irregularities in the contract, but he did nothing to resolve the issue. Bolsonaro told Radio Gaucha, “I can’t just, when anything comes to me, take action. I meet with more than 100 people a month.”
Speaking Sunday as he was being discharged from the hospital, Bolsonaro complained the CPI is too often accusing him of being corrupt. “Do you want to oust me from the government?” he said. “Only God (can) get me out of that chair. Didn’t they understand that only God takes me out of that chair? If there is any corruption in the government, I will be the first to find out and leave it in the hands of justice.”
He has accused the CPI of ignoring other allegations of corruption across Brazil to focus on him and his government. “They want to accuse me of genocide. Now, tell me in what country people have not died? This CPI has no credibility,” Bolsonaro said. The President added he is “sorry about the dead, but people who were healthy had little chance of dying.”
Political analyst Marco A. Teixeira told CNN that while unlikely, Bolsonaro may be at risk of impeachment. The Getulio Vargas University (FGV-SP) professor said while it’s not yet clear where the inquiry will lead, Bolsonaro’s government is compromised.
Teixeira predicted a “difficult scenario” for Bolsonaro in the run-up to the October 2022 presidential election, with Datafolha polling showing him trailing likely rival and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
“It is a different situation from the last election, because he is already being judged and has pending explanations to give to society. He lost the position of opposition. He can no longer say that he ‘will do it’ because he is already in government,” Teixeira said.
“Now his story is that he is not allowed to do anything by the Supreme Court and the Congress. … He has a narrative for each occasion,” Teixeira added.
Da Silva has hinted at a presidential run in 2022 after his convictions for corruption and money laundering were annulled in March, effectively restoring his right to run for office.
Da Silva has savaged the efforts of the administration to contain the outbreak, saying “there is no control in Brazil.” He described lockdowns as “necessary” – restrictions that Bolsonaro has frequently rejected.
“(Bolsonaro) prefers to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning, tell his lies through his mobile phone, through the social media, and we have been producing fake news as we’ve never seen in the history of Brazil, and he’s not dealing seriously,” da Silva has said.
Vying for votes
Bolsonaro – much like Trump during his reelection campaign – has been seeding doubt about the electronic voting machines used in Brazil, the very same system by which he and his sons were elected. He’s been pushing for the country to use printed ballots only, touting unproven claims previous elections were rigged using electronic voting.
Teixeira explains Bolsonaro’s recent health scare may work in his favor in terms of his popularity. He suggests supporters will rally around the President as they did at the time of his failed 2018 assassination attempt. An injury from that attempt has led to his current medical issues.
Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Sen. Flávio Bolsonaro, tweeted about his father’s recent hospital stay, “President @jairbolsonaro evolved for the better, he woke up in a good mood and, if he continues like this, he won’t need to undergo surgery! Thank you all for your prayers! #WhoOrderedTheBolsonaroAssassination.”
Teixeira explains the hashtag used by Bolsonaro’s son shows an attempt to mobilize supporters online.
“Bolsonaro’s health problem creates a smokescreen that gives his family a kind of ‘revival’ from the stab he suffered four years ago, showing an instrumentalization of something that had significant weight in the past elections and that can affect voting intention for next year,” Teixeira said.
Arriving at the hospital last week, Bolsonaro said Brazil is on “the path to prosperity” and thanked supporters for their prayers.
“That’s what motivates us to move forward and face whatever it takes to get the country out of the grip of corruption, reversal of values, organized crime, and to guarantee and protect the freedom of our people,” Bolsonaro said.
“May God bless us and continue to enlighten our nation. A big hug! – Brazil above all; God above all!”
CNN’s Rodrigo Pedroso and Juliana Koch reported from Sao Paulo, and Samantha Beech reported and wrote from Atlanta.