Jair Bolsonaro’s ‘all or nothing’ strategy

. May 26, 2019
bolsonaro demonstrations

Just five months into his term, President Jair Bolsonaro’s relationship with Congress has reached a level of toxicity which is rarely seen in Brazilian politics. As a candidate, he promised not to negotiate with parties—equating any kind of compromise with the traditional political class to corruption, going as far as saying that this style of governance landed two former presidents in jail. In response, lawmakers have inflicted a series of defeats on the administration, as well as stalling the progress of the pension reform, and pushing forward a tax reform without even consulting the Economy Ministry.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bolsonaro’s approval ratings are tumbling. Less than five months into his term, more people believe he is doing a “bad or terrible” job in office than those who approve his actions as president.

</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-full wp-image-17927" src="" alt="jair bolsonaro approval ratings" width="1200" height="480" srcset=" 1200w, 300w, 768w, 1024w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1200px) 100vw, 1200px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In order to galvanize supporters and cajole Congress into approving his agenda, Mr. Bolsonaro called for his supporters to take to the streets this afternoon and defend his government. These acts would be a response to the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">May 15 protests</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> against budget cuts in the Education Ministry. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The president even considered attending today&#8217;s protests, but was advised otherwise. Mr. Bolsonaro then tried—at least formally—to distance himself from the demonstrations, asking his cabinet members not to attend. It&#8217;s like they say in Brazil: protests are dangerous for an administration—you know how they start, but never how they end.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">During the week, on several social media channels, supporters of the president called for the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">shutdown</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> of Congress and the Supreme Court. This discourse was toned down slightly as the weekend approached, but there is no way of knowing how things will play out.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Pro-Bolsonaro acts will take place at least in 312 cities—considering those which have a scheduled time and place. One-third of them are set to take place in municipalities of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the two most-populated and wealthiest states of the country. The government is monitoring social media to identify possible black bloc protesters infiltrated among the crowds—a group of black-garbed and masked protesters who often commit acts of violence and vandalism against &#8220;symbols of capitalism,&#8221; such as bank branches and retail stores.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-full wp-image-17932" src="" alt="protests in brazil" width="755" height="749" srcset=" 755w, 150w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 755px) 100vw, 755px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Brasília, party leaders believe that the demonstrations will make a bad relationship between the branches of government even worse, regardless of their outcome. There are three possible outcomes of today&#8217;s acts:</span></p> <h2>(1) Pro-Bolsonaro acts draw massive crowds</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">One week prior to the presidential election runoff, in October 2018, Mr. Bolsonaro managed to attract huge crowds to the streets. That&#8217;s when he gave his infamous speech promising to &#8220;ban red crooks from our motherland.&#8221; </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">There&#8217;s a big caveat, though. Back then, he had the support of popular right-wing groups such as the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">MBL</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (Free Brazil Movement) and Vem Pra Rua (Come to the Street). Such groups have a lot of capillarity on social media and are able to mobilize thousands. This time around, they are not in Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s corner. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If the protests are massive, it will be a huge win for Bolsonarism. &#8220;It will mean that [Jair] Bolsonaro will monopolize the anti-Workers&#8217; Party rhetoric,&#8221; wrote philosopher Pablo Ortellado.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If that happens, Mr. Bolsonaro could gain the upper hand in his relationship with Congress. As one congressman once told me, &#8220;politicians become afraid when they feel crowds breathing down their necks.&#8221; If the president chooses to use that momentum to build bridges, it could help him turn around an administration that has close to nothing to show for—despite taking over with a favorable environment for reforms.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But if he uses that support to further disparage Congress, things could get even uglier.</span></p> <h2>(2) The demonstrations flop</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Having the streets empty is the worst-case scenario for the president. It would be a terrible sign of weakness for an administration that has barely started—changing the balance of power completely in favor of Congress. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In the corridors of Brasília, talks of impeachment have already started, due to Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s perceived inability to govern. At the very least, Congress wants to bulldoze the Executive branch and lead its own reform agenda. &#8220;We have to have a minimum level of stability in this country. And for that, we have to ignore the government, there&#8217;s no other way out,&#8221; said Congressman Elmar Nascimento, whip of the Democratas party—which controls both congressional chambers.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s situation could be reminiscent of that of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, when millions took to the streets asking for her removal from office. Without the backing of the streets, her toxic relationship with Congress cut her term short. The mere fact that we&#8217;re talking about this just five months into Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s term is already a bad sign.</span></p> <h2>(3) Protests do not flop, but are also not massive</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The likeliest scenario is somewhere in the middle. Bolsonarism is strong in the country&#8217;s interior, so we could see big demonstrations outside of major urban centers, while protests in large cities could be underwhelming. If that&#8217;s the case, it could go down as a win for the government—just like the 2018 truckers&#8217; strike gave Mr. Bolsonaro momentum prior to the election.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But this scenario could create a situation in which the government believes it has the support from the people, leading it to double down on its poor relationship with lawmakers—but not drawing massive crowds may not be enough for Congress to want a truce. That could take the country to an institutional stalemate.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">What we take from the president&#8217;s erratic behavior is that he doesn&#8217;t seem to have a plan. He only reacts, making poor decisions without pondering their consequences—and then having to backpedal on a number of them. One thing seems certain: tensions will continue to mount in Brasília.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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