Jun 23, 2020 - World

Pandemic meets political crisis as investigations hit Bolsonaro allies

Bolsonaro on inauguration day 18 months ago. Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty

Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency has captured global attention for three ongoing crises: deforestation in the Amazon, deaths from COVID-19, and doubts about the future of Brazilian democracy.

The big picture: Brazil is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, registering more new cases each day than any other country and the second-most deaths to date, after the U.S.

The president has downplayed that crisis but been forced to confront another as Brazil's Supreme Court has approved a sprawling investigation into his inner circle.

  • That investigation reportedly involves two of Bolsonaro’s sons and other close associates. It centers on the so-called “office of hate” — allegedly a coordinated operation to smear Bolsonaro’s critics online, spread fake news, and promote protests against the courts and congress.
  • Bolsonaro is also being investigated for obstruction of justice after the outgoing justice minister, Sérgio Moro, accused him of interfering with the police to gain more control over sensitive investigations — like an embezzlement probe involving another son, Flávio.
  • The arrest of a close Bolsonaro ally, Fabrício Queiroz, in connection with that investigation on Thursday was seen as another signal that the walls were closing in on the family. Queiroz has been described as a fixer for the Bolsonaros and used to work for Flávio.
  • Bolsonaro has railed against the investigations and claimed to be the victim of a witch hunt.

Flashback: Bolsonaro embraced comparisons to President Trump during his campaign, and the Trump administration greeted his election as a major opportunity to further its interests in the region.

  • A senior official with the State Department Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs tells Axios it has been a “remarkable 18 months” for the alliance, particularly on economic cooperation, though the pandemic has forced a change in focus.
  • The official said the current “like-mindedness” with Brazil was allowing for deeper cooperation on regional issues like Venezuela.
  • Asked about the controversies surrounding Bolsonaro at home and abroad, the official said Brazil was “an ally of ours in every sense of the word" and stressed that the country had "strong institutions."
Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Those institutions are under growing strain. Each weekend, Bolsonaro's supporters gather in front of the presidential palace and call for Congress and the Supreme Court to be shut down. Bolsonaro recently greeted them on horseback.

  • Bolsonaro has an unwavering base of around 30% of the electorate, who echo his support for guns, god and the military.

Where things stand: Bolsonaro continues to aim his rhetoric directly at his core supporters, says Mauricio Moura, a pollster for IDEIA Big Data.

  • "He was one of the very few world leaders who did not manage to gain popularity during the pandemic," Moura says. While Bolsonaro has a formidable political base, Moura says, "he's not adding anyone."
  • Moura says the president's political fortunes will be determined not by how many coronavirus cases and deaths Brazil records, but by the success of its economic recovery.
  • The pollster expects the base to stick with Bolsonaro through the investigations, unless direct links to organized crime groups are uncovered.

Concerns are rising over what Bolsonaro and his supporters will do if the situation truly comes to a head.

  • The Economist and FT have both raised fears about the survival of Brazilian democracy.
  • A Supreme Court justice, Celso de Mello, warned his fellow justices in a leaked message that they must “avoid what happened in the Weimar Republic,” when Adolf Hitler rose to power.
  • Many insist such fears are overblown. Though Bolsonaro is a staunch defender of military rule, retired generals have issued assurances that the military would not go along with any coup attempt.

What to watch: While there is growing speculation that Bolsonaro will be impeached or indicted, Brazilian political scientist Leonardo Barreto isn't expecting either in the short term.

  • "There is still no smoking gun against Mr. Bolsonaro — and he still commands around one-third of the electorate,” he writes for the Brazilian Report. Barreto anticipates "a long process of turbulence" instead.

The bottom line: 18 months into Bolsonaro's presidency, turbulence is one thing Brazilians have grown accustomed to.

Go deeper: The eye of the COVID-19 storm shifts to Latin America

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