Amid pandemic, Rio governor worries about his political survival

. Jun 06, 2020
rio Wilson Witzel during his inauguration ceremony. Photo: Carlos Magno/Secom Rio Governor Wilson Witzel during his inauguration ceremony. Photo: Carlos Magno/Secom

In October 2018, former judge Wilson Witzel went from being an unknown candidate for Rio de Janeiro’s governorship to one of the country’s fastest-rising political phenomena. In opinion polls just days before the election, Mr. Witzel was polling at just 4 percent — but he somehow managed to leapfrog all other candidates to pull off an upset, beating a former Rio de Janeiro mayor in the runoff. The quick ascension gave Mr. Witzel presidential hopes, which he has never missed an opportunity to voice publicly. But the governor is now facing a perfect storm of crises, and less than two years after taking office he is battling for political survival.

</p> <p>Rio de Janeiro is <a href="">losing the battle</a> against the coronavirus on multiple ends. Covid-19 is quickly spreading through the state — and the capital city presents the highest mortality rate among areas in which over 1 percent of people have coronavirus antibodies. Moreover, the effects of the economic crisis are starting to show, which will have major repercussions in a state that was left ravaged by the 2014-2016 recession. To make matters worse, Mr. Witzel is also <a href="">suspected of involvement in a corruption ring</a> working within the state’s health department — and has burned bridges with many parties in the state legislature.</p> <p>Facing ten impeachment requests, Mr. Witzel could soon find himself kicked out of the office he upset all the odds to win. He needs just 35 votes on his side to block a potential ousting — but some Rio political insiders believe he will have a hard time whipping even one-third of that total. In a bid to rally support, Mr. Witzel has invested heavily in horse-trading politics, reshuffling his cabinet in order to free up positions for new allies.</p> <p>But his cause will be a tough sell. On June 1, the <a href="">State Accounts Court rejected</a> the administration&#8217;s 2019 accounts. A negative opinion from the tribunal can also result in impeachment proceedings.</p> <p>Political scientist Ricardo Ismael, a professor at Rio&#8217;s Pontifical Catholic University, believes the governor is battling on too many fronts. “He has neither the political support nor the popular support he had when he was elected,” says Mr. Ismael. He points out that the ongoing corruption probe could also slowly burn any political capital Mr. Witzel be holding on to. “The investigation is progressing very quickly and is still underway. We could discover new facts [about the alleged corruption scheme] at any time,” adds the political scientist.</p> <h2>Horse-trading is the name of the game</h2> <p>The Rio de Janeiro state congress has ten impeachment requests against Mr. Witzel awaiting evaluation. The decision on whether or not to proceed with them is entirely up to Speaker André Ceciliano, a member of the center-left Workers’ Party. He hasn’t made any decision yet, but his public declarations suggest Mr. Witzel may be in trouble.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;[The governor] has offered almost any cabinet position [in exchange for support], in an attempt to weaken the State Congress. [&#8230;] We heard some comments coming from the governor&#8217;s office. That lawmakers are like candy — you can buy them at any corner,&#8221; Mr. Ceciliano was <a href="">quoted</a> as saying by newspaper O Globo.</p> <p>After the cabinet reshuffling, the government&#8217;s whip in the state congress, Márcio Pacheco, resigned. “I’m stepping away as [the governor] shows deep contempt for party leaders,” he said.&nbsp;</p> <p>In a desperate attempt to please lawmakers, Mr. Witzel has fired his right-hand man, Economic Development Secretary Lucas Tristão — who had also managed the governor&#8217;s campaign. His presence in the cabinet was a focal point of tension between the legislature and the executive —&nbsp;as lawmakers have accused Mr. Tristão of spying on them to dig up dirt for political leverage. &#8220;Getting rid of Lucas Tristão is a Hail Mary from the governor,&#8221; says one source who knows the ins and outs of Rio&#8217;s local politics. &#8220;If there are any bodies buried, he would know all about them.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is a delicate situation, but I would not go as far as saying that impeachment will definitely happen. Even without public support, he could work behind the scenes.”</p> <h2>Investigation and clash with Bolsonaro</h2> <p>The probe on Mr. Witzel takes place in the Superior Court of Justice. He is accused of receiving kickbacks from government contractors hired to build Rio&#8217;s Covid-19 field hospitals — every item in a USD 150-million contract was reportedly overpriced, with the governor allegedly getting a cut. The money would be laundered through a law firm belonging to his wife.</p> <p>Denying any wrongdoing, Mr. Witzel has called the probe a &#8220;<a href="">political hit job</a>&#8221; commissioned by one of his nemeses: President Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has celebrated the Federal Police&#8217;s search operation at his rival&#8217;s home, and there is evidence suggesting he knew about the probe beforehand — raising suspicions of foul play. “I am not going to talk to [Mr.] Witzel. Because, soon, you know where he will be, right?,” said Mr. Bolsonaro days before the raid, insinuating Mr. Witzel could soon find himself behind bars.</p> <p>By feuding with the president, Mr. Witzel loses the possibility of receiving federal aid to weather the crisis. And that possibility was a lifeboat to his predecessors.</p> <p>Back in June 2016, then-Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão declared a &#8220;<a href="">state of financial calamity</a>,&#8221; and former President Michel Temer — a member of the same party —&nbsp;offered help from the federal administration. It is hard to imagine that Messrs. Witzel and Bolsonaro could engage in such a relationship.</p> <p>“It will make life so much harder for Mr. Witzel. There will be a considerable loss of revenue because of the coronavirus, and Rio de Janeiro is very dependent on the federal government. He should have thought twice before fighting with the president,” said Mr. Ismael.</p> <p>Rio de Janeiro had 6,010 coronavirus deaths and 59,240 confirmed cases until June 3 — which makes the state the second hardest-hit state in the country. Despite this, Mr. Witzel announced<a href=""> the relaxation of isolation measures</a> on June 6.

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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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