Bolsonaro’s beef with governors reaches new highs

. May 10, 2020
governors President Jair Bolsonaro (left) and São Paulo Governor João Doria. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR President Jair Bolsonaro (left) and São Paulo Governor João Doria. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Even before the coronavirus outbreak reached Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro had a fractious relationship with state governors. But the debate about the right approach to contain the pandemic brought the situation to a boiling point. Since mid-March, Bolsonaro has been pushing for the relaxation of quarantine rules across the country, in order to “avoid a full-scale economic collapse.” On the opposing side, many governors insist the restrictive measures are necessary to contain the pandemic. 

Some of the highlights of this back-and-forth sparring include the president calling governors “job exterminators,” and 20 of 27 state administrators issuing a joint open letter against the president’s approach to the coronavirus on April 19.

A few weeks later, public spats are not as heated as they have been, but the tension is far from over. With the dramatic rise of the infection curve in several states, governors have been introducing new stricter quarantine rules. Governors are now facing backlash from the section of business owners that have sided with the president.&nbsp;</p> <p>On May 7, Mr. Bolsonaro and Economy Minister Paulo Guedes crossed the Three Powers Square, in Brasília, on foot —&nbsp;and attempted to storm the Supreme Court building. At their side were a group of lobbyists and businessmen, demanding the reopening of the economy.</p> <p>Back in March, the Supreme Court ruled that governors — and not the federal administration&nbsp;—&nbsp;have the power to enact quarantines. &#8220;Mr. Bolsonaro went to the Supreme Court because he wants to have this power back, he wants to disallow restrictive measures like lockdowns,” political scientist Magna Inacio, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="economy minister bolsonaro business owners" class="wp-image-38760" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Jair Bolsonaro, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, and business owners head to the Supreme Court. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR</figcaption></figure> <p>In an attempt to circumvent the governors&#8217; power, Mr. Bolsonaro has recently <a href="">issued a decree</a> increasing the number of activities labeled as &#8220;essential,&#8221; including all industrial activities, natural gas companies, among others. Prior to that, he ruled that churches and temples — catering to his key evangelical support base —&nbsp;are essential services, too.</p> <p>But quarantine rules are not the only reason for the increasing tension between states and the federal government. There is also a dispute regarding financial aid to state municipalities. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes wanted aid to be conditional on the freezing of civil servants&#8217; wages for at least one and a half years. But lawmakers, in accordance with governors, passed a long list of exceptions — allowing for wage increases in the public sector. Mr. Bolsonaro, however, has promised to veto the changes made by Congress and narrow governors&#8217; ability to increase wages.</p> <p>&#8220;With less money, governors have less capacity to answer. It helps Mr. Bolsonaro in his aim of sharing the blame for the coronavirus-related economic crisis with governors and mayors. But regarding health consequences, I think Mr. Bolsonaro will lose by himself. Mainly if the numbers in Brazil keep escalating,&#8221; said Ms. Inacio.</p> <h2>São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro governors: friends turned foes</h2> <p>On May 9, Brazil reached the 10,000 dead mark due to Covid-19. But in such a vast country, the situation varies significantly from state to state. São Paulo, the wealthiest and most populated state in the country, accounts for a third of the country&#8217;s deaths. But Rio de Janeiro has recently posted higher daily deaths counts&nbsp;—&nbsp;and the state&#8217;s healthcare system is fast reaching its full capacity.&nbsp; The governors of both states are both former Bolsonaro allies (and potential candidates for president in 2022) turned fierce critics</p> <p>In São Paulo, João Doria has positioned himself as a responsible center-right counterpoint to the president. On May 6, as his state recorded over 3,000 deaths, Mr. Doria blamed Mr. Bolsonaro for a drop in social isolation rates.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;What has been stimulating people is the erratic behavior of the president, who provides bad examples every weekend when he goes around in Brasilia, denying the science and the need for social isolation.&#8221; Research corroborates Mr. Doria&#8217;s remarks, with a <a href="">recently published study by the University of Cambridge</a> — in conjunction with the Fundação Getúlio Vargas São Paulo School of Economics — showing that the president’s anti-isolation message has reduced the overall rate of social distancing in Brazil.</p> <p>As the number of cases keeps growing, São Paulo faces a situation in which a strict lockdown might become unavoidable. In Rio, Governor Wilson Witzel allowed mayors to decide whether to go into lockdown —&nbsp;exempting himself from responsibility. In the state capital, some neighborhoods are already closed, but large sections of the city are not adhering to quarantine rules.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3464563"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>North and Northeast</h2> <p>Brazil&#8217;s North and Northeast — the country&#8217;s poorest regions —&nbsp;are the first in the country to experience a collapse of their states&#8217; healthcare systems. Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, was the first to experience a full-scale collapse, by May 8 562 people have died in the city, but the true numbers are likely significantly higher.</p> <p>In the neighboring state of Pará, the state&#8217;s capital and its metropolitan region have been placed under lockdown on May 7. “When the president goes in the opposite direction, I’m sure he is sending a message that weakens, confuses, doesn’t help [efforts to flatten the curve]. He needs to be aware of the repercussions of his acts,” Pará Governor Helder Barbalho told <a href=""><em>Congresso em Foco</em></a>.</p> <p>State capitals in Maranhão, Ceará, Pernambuco, and Bahia are facing similar situations. Among them, only Recife, in Pernambuco, has yet to impliment a lockdown plan.</p> <p>As Magna Inacio points out, “Governors and mayors have been pushed to act because of the inaction of the federal government. It meant a low degree of coordination, decisions made erratically, isolatedly. The reason is the lack of leadership from Brasilia.”&nbsp;</p> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s allies</h2> <p>If Mr. Bolsonaro has 20 governors openly criticizing him, there are seven that decided not to join. Among them are the governors of Minas Gerais, Paraná, and the Federal District. The latter, Ibaneis Rocha, has even joined the presidential cabinet during recent press conferences.</p> <p>Romeu Zema, from Minas Gerais, said on May 7 that isolation <a href="">cannot be the only measure to combat the pandemic</a>, as he is concerned with the economic fallout. The governor of the second most populated state in the country, Mr. Zema has avoided public criticism of Mr. Bolsonaro.</p> <p>“Unfortunately, there is politicization. If the president says something wrong, I&#8217;m working; it is not my role to go to the radio and point my finger to him. I&#8217;m sure he is trying to do as much as possible; he is well-intentioned. Some governors have been taking advantage of this situation for electoral reasons.&#8221;, said Mr. Zema.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3644899"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Political dispute</h2> <p>While states and cities are working on closures, president Jair Bolsonaro insists on reopening. Beyond the public appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bolsonaro continuously rants against the isolation. For instance, he recently <a href="">rode on a jet ski and approached a group of friends</a> holding a barbecue on a boat —&nbsp;breaking social isolation recommendations.</p> <p>It is because of actions like this, that the following weeks look set to be difficult for the governors and mayors trying to maintain lockdown measures. According to Ms. Inacio, on the one hand, Mr. Bolsonaro’s strategy may be efficient for blaming governors for the economic crisis. But on the other hand, if his public health policy fails, the president is unlikely to complete his aim of passing the blame for deaths.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Governors have, in their favor, the fact that the Brazilian society is watching what is happening. It is social isolation hardly made by governors and mayors, but more difficult also due to the presidential boycott speech.” She labels Mr. Bolsonaro’s behavior as “typically populist,” needing to pick enemies to build a narrative strategy.

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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