Bolsonaro wants to win over the Northeast

. Jul 05, 2020
Jair Bolsonaro northeast Jair Bolsonaro inaugurates stretch of the São Francisco river transfer. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

On June 26, in the small Ceará countryside town of Penaforte, President Jair Bolsonaro posed for photos in front of a rushing canal, with his arms aloft, thanking the heavens. He was taking part in the inauguration of another stretch of the São Francisco river transfer project, aimed at delivering water to one of the country’s driest regions.

This was the latest in a series of such photo ops concerning the project, since it was started by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2007. Along with Mr. Bolsonaro, five presidents have claimed ownership of the initiative. But beyond a squabble over the parentage of a major infrastructure endeavor, the president’s presence in Penaforte is a clue toward his strategy to hold on to popularity, and perhaps curry favor in a region in which he has never enjoyed much support.

</p> <p>Since the pandemic started, the share of the Brazilian population who evaluates Bolsonaro’s administration as bad or terrible went from 36 to 44 percent. But despite the increase in rejection, he has been able to sustain his moderate approval ratings of just above 30 percent. The Northeast of Brazil, the poorest region of the country, has played an important role in this trend and could well be Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s next frontier.</p> <p>Besides showing up to the inauguration of the São Francisco project in the middle of a pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro has also used his Twitter account to specifically mention the Northeast region five times between June 25 and July 1. The other four areas of the country had one mention each in this timeframe.</p> <p>If this is his strategy, then the new focus is influenced by different circumstances, according to the political scientist Antonio Lavareda. The “<a href="">Big Center</a>” of Congress, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s newest allies, is one of the reasons.</p> <p>Many of the leaders of the so-called Big Center parties are politicians from the Northeast region, such as Arthur Lira, from Alagoas, Aguinaldo Ribeiro, from Piauí), and the <a href="">new Communications Minister Fábio Faria</a>, who hails from Rio Grande do Norte.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The attempts to grow in the Northeast are visible and are associated with this approach to the Big Center. Translating into a single character, remember that the new minister [Mr. Faria] is from the Northeast and must be the one who is providing the government with this information,” says Mr. Lavareda, a professor of the Federal University of Pernambuco and president of pollster Ipespe.</p> <h2>How the Northeast sees Bolsonaro</h2> <p>The Northeast of Brazil comprises nine states and numerous distinct regions with different characteristics, strengths, and needs. Poverty plagues a significant share of the population, mainly in the Sertão — the semi-arid backlands of the region which often suffers from droughts.</p> <p>The Northeast was where Jair Bolsonaro polled worst in 2018 and where he has his highest rejection rates. The region has voted for center-left Workers&#8217; Party candidates since 2002, but the current president is hoping to reverse that trend. While he is still held in poor regard in the Northeast, it is also where his approval ratings have increased the most in recent weeks.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3082043" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>The most likely reason for this uptick in popularity is the government&#8217;s emergency coronavirus aid program, implemented during the pandemic. After a long dispute and plenty of pressure from Congress, the Bolsonaro administration agreed to provide three monthly payments of BRL 600 (USD 114) for the unemployed and informal workers.</p> <p>“It was a political movement related to the base of society, the poor of Brazil, to avoid deepening the economic and social crisis. In the Northeast, the percentage of people in this situation is quite high. So, if it was not motivated by geography, it is clear that this has a repercussion where there is a significant presence of poor families,” says Mr. Lavareda.</p> <p>At a moment when the economy is suffering a significant hit, the welfare brought by the extra income has a wholly positive effect on those who receive it. Mr. Lavareda emphasizes that, mainly in the countryside, many small towns are dependent on this sort of governmental money transfer. “It impacts the whole economy, especially the smaller towns, traders. It can have a positive impact on popularity over time.”</p> <p>A sign the government is satisfied with the program’s effects on its popularity is the fact the president agreed to extend these aid payments. On July 1, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes announced that another BRL 1,200 would be paid out to the beneficiaries, over two months.&nbsp;</p> <p>But <a href="">this only tells half of the story</a>. His rejection rate in the Northeast is still above 50 percent, and it is higher now than it was in December. Datafolha polls also show that his opposition remains high even among those who received the emergency coronavirus salary.</p> <p>Mr. Lavareda thinks Mr. Bolsonaro has room to increase his popularity if he is able to wield ownership of the extra income program. As things stand, parentage of the aid is disputed between the president and Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>In initial talks surrounding the benefit program, Jair Bolsonaro and his economic team were willing to pay a much lower sum per month, but Congress pressed the Executive for a higher value. “There is an intermediate variable: who will achieve the political appropriation of this public policy. Some think that the aid is Bolsonaro&#8217;s plan, others think it was Congress.”</p> <h2>Shifting base</h2> <p>Exactly how much popularity Mr. Bolsonaro can generate in the Northeast is still unclear, but this bump in support from poorer populations is already crucial to preserve his current approval rates, cushioning the losses among some of his more traditional constituents.</p> <p>In a December 2019 Datafolha poll — the last survey to be carried out before the Covid-19 pandemic — just 32 percent of those who classified Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s government as &#8220;good or great&#8221; earned less than twice the national minimum wage. Six months later, this same strata made up 52 percent of his supporters.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3082162" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>With at least two more months of paying out emergency aid and a communication strategy tailored to pander to the Northeast, Mr. Lavareda thinks President Bolsonaro may be successful in winning over the hearts and minds of those in Brazil&#8217;s poorest region. “I think he has a reasonable chance to improve rates in the Northeast states. With public policy and approximation, propaganda, pronunciations, he should be able to achieve some success.”

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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