Bolsonaro’s call to arms could be a shot in the foot

. May 20, 2019
bolsonaro call to arms

On May 15, around a million protestors took to the streets in over 170 Brazilian cities. Primarily made up of students and teachers, the masses marched against education budget cuts proposed by the sitting government. Speaking from Dallas, Texas, President Jair Bolsonaro called the demonstrators “useful idiots” who were being co-opted by a “cunning left-wing minority.” Despite Mr. Bolsonaro’s attempts to minimize the movement on the street, May 15 became the largest anti-government protest in the first year of a first-term president.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Less than six months into his presidency, Jair Bolsonaro is firmly on the back foot. Government crises appear to sprout on a weekly basis and the president&#8217;s popularity is slipping fast. In an attempt to show strength, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s allies have called their own pro-government protest for this Sunday, May 26. However, Brazil&#8217;s broad right wing, which elected Mr. Bolsonaro last October, is less than enthusiastic about the prospects of taking to the streets.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In fact, some divisions of the president&#8217;s support base have come out in explicit opposition to the May 26 demonstrations. One of the most vocal critics has been Janaína Paschoal, who became the most-voted state lawmaker in Brazilian history last year, representing Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s Social Liberal Party (PSL). On her </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Twitter</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> account, Ms. Paschoal called the government &#8220;irrational&#8221; and accused the president of &#8220;generating chaos.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;Wake up! If the streets are empty on May 26, Mr. Bolsonaro will realize that he has to stop the drama and WORK!&#8221;</span></p> <p><a href=""><img loading="lazy" class="alignnone size-full wp-image-17697" src="" alt="janaina paschoal bolsonaro 26 may" width="1264" height="662" srcset=" 1264w, 300w, 768w, 1024w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1264px) 100vw, 1264px" /></a></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This blatant criticism of the president goes along with a gradual shift from the &#8220;moderate&#8221; or &#8220;pragmatic&#8221; right wing which supported Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s election. Last week, the young conservative </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Free Brazil Movement</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (MBL) took to its Twitter account to lambast the president&#8217;s disparaging attitude towards protesting students on May 15, blaming him for creating more and more enemies among the population.</span></p> <h2>Measuring unrest on social media</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The fact that both of these dissenting voices took to Twitter to show their irritation with the government is indicative of a wider phenomenon. Since last year&#8217;s election campaign, social media has become one of the most effective tools for measuring government support. Last year, a united, organized front online, spanning various groups and ideologies, helped propel Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency, spreading campaign material on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, and calling people to the streets to rally behind the PSL candidate.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Now, this cohesion among the many nuclei that make up &#8220;online Bolsonarism&#8221; has disappeared. On May 15, only those social media networks linked to Olavo de Carvalho—the president&#8217;s far-right ideological mentor—and Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s outspoken son Carlos were active in their support of the president. The others came out in opposition or remained silent.</span></p> <h2>Bolsonaro forced to show his hand</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Barring any late shifts, the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">demonstrations</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> on May 26 are likely to show an effective measure of just how much support the Olavo de Carvalho/Carlos Bolsonaro wing actually has. Indications of social media squabbles would suggest that the numbers will not be nearly as large as the president is hoping for.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The May 26 protests will also show just how far to the right these groups are willing to go. In calling people to the streets, Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s allies intend to support the government, but </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">attack Congress and the Supreme Court</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, who they see as obstacles to their agenda.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Just last week, Mr. Bolsonaro shared a letter on his personal WhatsApp groups which complained about the president&#8217;s inability to govern the country without &#8220;</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">conspiracies</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8221; with the Legislative and Judiciary branches. This afternoon, while receiving an award from the Rio de Janeiro Federation of Industry (Firjan), Mr. Bolsonaro doubled down on this rhetoric, calling the political class in Brasilia the country&#8217;s &#8220;biggest problem.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Celso Rocha de Barros, sociologist, and columnist at newspaper </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Folha de S. Paulo</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">, wrote today that those in support of the protests are discussing &#8220;closing Congress and expelling Supreme Court justices&#8221; on social media. &#8220;It&#8217;s a movement in defense of a coup d&#8217;etat,&#8221; he added.</span></p> <h2>What if it all goes wrong?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Besides showing support for the president, one of the clear goals of the May 26 protests is to draw larger crowds than those that came out to march against the government&#8217;s education cuts. Considering that Mr. Bolsonaro is rapidly alienating his support bases on the broader right and his approval rates are dropping, an educated guess would say May 26 will not come close to the numbers seen on May 15. If this was the case, what would that do to the president&#8217;s public image? Recent history may have some answers.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In 1992, embattled President Fernando Collor de Melo faced rising opposition and a Parliamentary Committee of Investigation was launched to probe alleged corruption schemes within his administration. In an act of defiance against his critics, Mr. Collor called the Brazilian people to the street to show their support for their president, saying they should wear green and yellow and march in favor of their homeland.</span></p> <div id="attachment_17698" style="width: 660px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-17698" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-17698" src="" alt="caras pintadas collor brazil president" width="650" height="432" srcset=" 650w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 650px) 100vw, 650px" /><p id="caption-attachment-17698" class="wp-caption-text">Demonstrators against Fernando Collor: call to arms backfired</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">His wager, however, did not pay off. People did take to the streets, but instead of being decked out in the colors of the Brazilian flag, they wore black, painting small green-and-yellow stripes on their cheeks, and demanding Mr. Collor&#8217;s resignation. This was the so-called &#8220;</span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">caras pintadas</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8221; (painted faces) movement, which eventually led to the president stepping down four months later.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Looking back on the event years later, Mr. Collor recognized his mistakes, saying that calling for the demonstration was akin to &#8220;poking a jaguar with a short stick.&#8221; Jair Bolsonaro may do well to heed this advice.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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