President Bolsonaro and his three politician sons

The Jair Bolsonaro administration is not your ordinary government. Unlike its predecessors, this administration has brought a new breed of politicians into the center stage. Never—at least not during democratic times—was a head of state so far from the political center, nor so peripheral to traditional circles of power. Even the former military presidents, who were outsiders from the partisan system, held prominent roles within Army barracks. During his 30 years in politics, Mr. Bolsonaro was always a backbencher and, due to his outrageous statements, he became somewhat of a folkloric character. The last time he ran for the House Speaker position, Mr. Bolsonaro obtained four of 513 votes.

This administration is also peculiar due to the fact that control is disputed between six independent influences, each having its own agenda—fairly incompatible with what the others want. Let’s order them from the most to least rational.

The government’s stakeholders

Economy Minister Paulo Guedes leads the more rational group. He managed to name what is arguably the most homogeneous economic team in history.

Then come the military officers, who now amount to eight cabinet members (after Secretary-General Gustavo Bebianno was sacked and replaced by retired General Floriano Peixoto) and also occupy high positions within several ministries, from Justice to Education. On one side, this group is bound by a certain economic pragmatism, which puts it closer to Mr. Guedes’ group. But its strong corporatism is a serious threat to the federal budget, and its lack of appreciation for democracy could pose a threat to civil liberties.

Paulo guedes

President Bolsonaro and Economy Minister Paulo Guedes

The third group is what I call the “legal-technical” group, led by justice minister Sergio Moro—who, despite having acted as an activist while on the bench, presents himself as a technocrat. His prominence comes from his role as an “anti-corruption hero,” even if he stretched the boundaries of Brazil’s penal code during his time as the lead judge in Operation Car Wash. His “anti-crime bill,” to be presented to Congress this week, gives state agents immense powers to use force—and even kill—showing which kind of expertise he brings to the table.

We also have a group of pragmatic politicians: six cabinet members from right-wing parties. Connected to interests groups, these men are fighting for the industries to which they are connected, especially landowners. But while this group is to the right of the center, it is more bound by pragmatic results than ideology. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles belongs to this group, as did Gustavo Bebianno. Despite a lack of partisan history, Mr. Bebianno has experience in important law firms and had become an important negotiator.

Then, there is the “ideological” group. Here, we can throw in Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, Education Minister Ricardo Vélez-Rodríguez, and Human Rights Minister Damares Alves. The first two were handpicked by far-right guru Olavo de Carvalho, while the latter was suggested by the Evangelical caucus in Congress. What makes them fit in, in the eyes of the president, is not their ability, but rather their fidelity to conservative values. These are the government’s “cultural warriors.”

Finally, we have the most peculiar group: the president’s nuclear family. In particular, his three eldest sons—who act like cabinet members—and their acolytes. Never in Brazilian history was the president’s family so influential within an administration. Mr. Bolsonaro’s sons have an opinion about everything, as well as representing the country abroad, speaking in the name of the head of state, and even appointing—or firing—cabinet members.

carlos eduardo bolsonaro

Carlos (L) and Eduardo Bolsonaro

The political strength of the president’s sons

The public conflict between Carlos Bolsonaro, a Rio de Janeiro city councilor, and one of the president’s closest advisors has shocked the political world—even among the president’s supporters. Many stakeholders tried to save Mr. Bebianno, but his fate was sealed when Mr. Bolsonaro retweeted an attack by his son Carlos, who called Mr. Bebianno a liar.

If firing a cabinet member after a social media exchange wasn’t odd enough, Mr. Bolsonaro waited for five days—after the Twitter battle—before pulling the plug, making matters even worse.

Several doubts hang upon the government. First, because there’s no sign that the president’s sons will lose any of their power. They could turn their social media cannons on other cabinet members, in the name of their personal agenda and ideological convictions. And let’s not forget that the eldest Bolsonaro child, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, is in the middle of a potentially very destructive scandal, being linked to urban militias (suspected of killing Rio’s City Councilor Marielle Franco in March 2018) and money laundering schemes.

By giving too much power to his sons, President Bolsonaro is making their problems his government’s.

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BY Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.