A government on the road to collapse

. May 22, 2019
crisis bolsonaro A government on the road to collapse brazil

Just days before finishing his fifth month in office, President Jair Bolsonaro already sees his administration immersed in a profound crisis. In the corridors of Brasília, people are talking about resignation, impeachment, or even the possibility that the president may try to subvert the democratic order. After students and teachers from across the country staged massive protests against the government on May 15, the president’s most fervent supporters want an act of their own in response. Their targets? Congress’ “Big Center“—the group of center-right parties which hold a majority in the lower house—the Supreme Court, and the press.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But the discourse put forward by the most radical fringes of the right-wing—with the veiled support of the head of state himself—exposed cracks within Bolsonarism (both in Congress and among supporters outside the political arena). Pragmatic members of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s Social Liberal Party voiced their opposition to a </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">government-backed protest</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, clashing with the ideological zealots. Over the weekend, two congresswomen traded barbs on social media—exposing, for the whole country to see, the lack of unity among the government&#8217;s support base.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Other high-profile names also voiced their displeasure. Retail mogul Flávio Rocha advised against the demonstration, and São Paulo state lawmaker Janaína Paschoal (who was nearly named as Mr. Bolsonaro running mate in 2018) publicly </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">questioned the president&#8217;s sanity</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">—and his anti-democratic stances.</span></p> <h2>Losing grip of the pension reform</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Even the pension system reform, which was supposed to be at the core of the government&#8217;s economic agenda, seems to belong more to Congress than to the president himself. And while there is a consensus that </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">some</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> change must happen to the social security system, the bill to be approved will certainly not be the one initially proposed by Economy Minister Paulo Guedes.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In itself, that would be business as usual—it is rare that any piece of legislation goes through Congress without being amended (and in the case of reforms, watered-down). But while other presidents had to fight tooth and nail to pass any reform, we are living in times where it might pass </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">despite</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> the administration—not thanks to it. But that&#8217;s no sustainable way to govern a country.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While the pension reform is pivotal to the government, it alone won&#8217;t be enough for the administration to be effective. And the president has simply refused to lead a coalition—without which there is no congressional majority, and ultimately, no way to govern. Signs of strain may be seen everywhere—the latest being House Speaker Rodrigo Maia saying his relationship with the government&#8217;s whip in the House is &#8220;beyond repair.&#8221;</span></p> <h2>How long can the crisis last?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">One small detail illustrates how problematic the scenario seems to be for the president. </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">GloboNews</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">, Brazil&#8217;s leading cable news channel, dedicated an entire episode of a political talk show to </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Paula Mourão</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, wife of Vice President Hamilton Mourão. Since when is the Second Lady newsworthy? Especially in such a turbulent scenario? Only when a journalist imagines that she might become First Lady—and want to get her on the record before the competition.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s belligerent and folkloric style doesn&#8217;t allow us to envision a sudden behavioral U-turn. He continues to be loyal to his sons, insulting adversaries, taking controversial decisions, and stretching tensions between the different government branches. One such case is his decree loosening gun ownership laws. The bill was rejected by 13 governors and is being challenged at the Supreme Court. The government suggested it might backpedal on the decree after one </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">gun manufacturer</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> rejoiced at the idea of selling 2,000 assault rifles to regular citizens.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Indeed, the administration yielded and issued changes to the gun decree. The new legislation tightens up some parts of the original decree, particularly with regard to the types of firearms and ammunition that common citizens may obtain.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">And if all that wasn&#8217;t enough, last week, </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro published a text</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> suggesting he was a president under siege by coup-mongering corporations, open to the idea of resignation or rupture with democracy. Two days later, he published a video of a Congolese preacher saying Jair Bolsonaro was a man sent by God, who shouldn&#8217;t be opposed. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">For a while, President Bolsonaro entertained the idea of attending the demonstrations in his support—which would escalate the crisis even further. His spokesperson, however, announced that he has given up on the idea. Based on recent history, we might have to wait and see. If Mr. Bolsonaro does join a demonstration against the other branches of government, he will become the symbol of this assault against our current institutional order in what could be the Brazilian equivalent of crossing the Rubicon.

Claudio Couto

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

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at