A president under siege

. Jun 22, 2020
jair bolsonaro another crisis Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Isac Nobrega/PR

Last week, the Federal Police — with authorization from the Supreme Court — launched the largest operation ever against supporters of a sitting president. Under the scope of an investigation into the use of clandestine networks spreading fake news and promoting anti-democratic protests, the Feds lifted the confidentiality of bank and phone records of 11 members of Congress loyal to President Jair Bolsonaro. Not even during the heydays of Operation Car Wash — during which Brazilians would consistently see Hollywood-like raids on billionaires and politicians — did we see so many high-profile actors being targeted at once.

To make matters worse, the arrest of Fabrício Queiroz — an old friend of the president’s who worked for his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro — came just two days later. As The Brazilian Report explained, Mr. Queiroz is a pivotal figure in a money-laundering investigation against the senator. His whereabouts were unknown for over a year, and he resurfaced at a property belonging to a lawyer close to the Bolsonaros — this does not paint a pretty picture for the First Family.

</p> <p>To Bolsonaro supporters, last week&#8217;s events could have more of an effect on the government vis à vis its popularity than any threat cabinet members — or the president himself — might make against democratic institutions, a notion that may be too abstract for the average voter.</p> <p>We could say that this moment represents Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s highest point of isolation since taking office in January 2019.</p> <p>Ironically, it comes precisely as the president&#8217;s chief of staff, former Army General Walter Braga Netto, has successfully carried out a decompression plan to mend fences with Congress. The government has engaged in <a href="">horse-trading deals with smaller parties</a>, the first step towards building a functioning coalition.&nbsp;</p> <p>But the government&#8217;s unwillingness to call out its most radical supporters, who have threatened Supreme Court justices —&nbsp;saying their daughters should be raped and murdered — has broken any lingering trust between the different branches of government.</p> <p>It is telling that the House Speaker and Senate President remained silent about this week&#8217;s police operations&nbsp;—&nbsp;which might suggest that opposition to the government is stronger than Congress’s corporate instincts.</p> <h2>The deterioration of the president&#8217;s stability</h2> <p>There is a consensus among members of Congress and the Supreme Court that the president is ambivalent in his demeanor —&nbsp;sometimes challenging democratic institutions, sometimes signaling a willingness for dialogue.</p> <p>The ongoing investigations will reveal if the president not only tolerates<a href=""> his most radical supporters</a> but actually finances them with public money. Federal prosecutors are scrutinizing ads paid for by the president&#8217;s press service on websites considered to be disinformation hubs. If a link between these groups and the presidential palace is proven, we could enter into impeachment territory.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the Superior Electoral Court will hold a trial to determine whether or not a massive illegal messaging scheme used in the 2018 election to benefit Mr. Bolsonaro had ties with his official campaign committee. As <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> explained, that would constitute an electoral crime and a conviction would <a href="">unseat both the president and Vice-President Hamilton Mourão</a>.</p> <p>Proving the connection almost two years after the election would be difficult and certainly would raise many questions regarding the political motivations behind the investigation.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, cases of this nature in Brazil are never strictly about the law, as there is always a strong underpinning political element. The president&#8217;s detractors are putting pressure on electoral judges not to yield to the president — especially after Mr. Bolsonaro hinted that the <a href="">Armed Forces would intervene</a> should the 2018 election results be nullified.</p> <p>But, at risk of demoralizing other branches of government, the more Mr. Bolsonaro threatens justices, the more they <em>must</em> call his bluff.</p> <h2>How the crisis will unfold</h2> <p>The short-term scenario is not likely to see an impeachment process or a conviction by electoral courts. There is still no smoking gun against Mr. Bolsonaro — and he still commands around one-third of the electorate.</p> <p>We are far from reaching the point in which the crisis will be solved. The likely scenario is a long process of turbulence that <em>could</em> end with Mr. Bolsonaro out of office, but that is only one of the possible outcomes.</p> <p>Decompression necessarily requires major concessions from the president. He would have to tone down his rhetoric, without any guarantee that the Supreme Court would drop their investigations against him.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro would also have to signal to the country that seeing out his term would be less damaging than his fall. He would have to control the radicals — the exit of the Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub, is one example of this. Moreover, the president would have to strengthen his ties to the political establishment and respect the internal dynamics of other centers of power, along with adopting a credible economic plan to exit this crisis. Such a plan would require both the approval of the markets and have a social element that could help strengthen his political position.</p> <p>Unconditional surrender might go against the president&#8217;s character&nbsp;— but it might be the only way to pacify Brazilian politics.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p><em>Follow Leonardo on Twitter: <a href="">@LeonardoCapPol</a></em>

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Leonardo Barreto

Leonardo Barreto holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Brasília and is a director at consulting cabinet Vector Análise.

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