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Jair Bolsonaro has never been safer from impeachment

. Aug 18, 2020
bolsonaro impeachment no way Jair Bolsonaro in Aracaju, Sergipe. Photo: Alan Santos/PR

Last week, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes issued a public warning to President Jair Bolsonaro. Speaking to the press, the embattled cabinet minister said some of the head of state’s advisors are pushing the president into the “impeachment zone” by demanding more public spending. 

While certainly strong-worded, the only reason Mr. Guedes felt within his rights to issue such a warning is that impeachment is not on the table for Mr. Bolsonaro. Three and a half months after political pundits traded predictions on how long the president would last in office — after former Justice Minister Sergio Moro accused him of illegally meddling with the Federal Police for personal benefit — ousting Mr. Bolsonaro seems to be a very remote possibility indeed.

</p> <p>That isn&#8217;t for a lack of justifications, either. In the months following Mr. Moro&#8217;s resignation, the number of coronavirus deaths in Brazil has risen uncontrollably, with almost 110,000 fatal victims of <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/">Covid-19</a> at the time of publication. In Brazil and abroad, Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s denialism about the severity of the pandemic has been elected as the main reason for the country&#8217;s botched coronavirus response.&nbsp;</p> <p>Major television and print media have run editorials affirming that the president&#8217;s behavior is in violation of the Constitution, yet such criticism has had no practical consequences.</p> <p>Beyond claims of negligence concerning the Covid-19 pandemic, there are also criminal investigations surrounding President Bolsonaro and his sons. The eldest Bolsonaro child, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, is suspected of having misused government funds when he was a state lawmaker, taking cuts from his staffers&#8217; paychecks. The alleged operator of this corruption scheme and long-time friend of the Bolsonaros, <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/18/arrest-fabricio-queiroz-pressure-president-jair-bolsonaro/">Fabricio Queiroz</a>, is currently on house arrest.</p> <p>Rio de Janeiro city councilor Carlos Bolsonaro — President Bolsonaro&#8217;s second-eldest son — is also in hot water, being at the center of a federal probe concerning an underground (and illegal) <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/07/28/fake-news-crackdown-opens-dangerous-precedent-for-censorship/">fake news network</a>.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/2QHSrZ4wDNUjva9SfKQMty" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Stirring up trouble</h2> <p>Jair Bolsonaro himself has given plenty of discomfort to the other branches of government in Brasília, attending several anti-democratic street demonstrations demanding the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to monthly magazine Piauí, President Bolsonaro even <a href="https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/materia/vou-intervir/">threatened to launch a military intervention</a> in an April 22 meeting, saying he would close the Supreme Court and kick out all 11 justices. He was subsequently talked down by some of his closest advisors. <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> was able to confirm the veracity of this story and found that the head of state has in fact <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/17/president-bolsonaro-threatened-military-intervention-several-times/">discussed launching a self-coup</a> on a number of occasions in behind-the-scenes talks. However, not even this blatant disregard for democracy has been enough to mobilize any real threat of impeachment of President Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of Brazil&#8217;s lower house of Congress, has said that he does not see any reason for impeachment proceedings to be opened against Mr. Bolsonaro. The two have been at loggerheads ever since the president was sworn in on January 1, 2019, and Mr. Maia is the only politician with the power to accept or dismiss impeachment requests against the head of state. Yet, he appears reticent to do so.</p> <p>“Impeachment is something we have to be very careful about. It cannot be an instrument for solving crises, and it is necessary to have a legal basis. And I still don’t find any legal basis to do it,” declared Mr. Maia, in early August.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="799" height="533" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50048040612_92a75b20a6_c.jpg" alt="bolsonaro impeachment no way" class="wp-image-47988" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50048040612_92a75b20a6_c.jpg 799w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50048040612_92a75b20a6_c-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50048040612_92a75b20a6_c-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50048040612_92a75b20a6_c-610x407.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50048040612_92a75b20a6_c-600x400.jpg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 799px) 100vw, 799px" /><figcaption>President Jair Bolsonaro during a trip to the Northeast. Photo: Marcos Côrrea/PR</figcaption></figure> <p>In theory, Brazilian presidents may be impeached when they commit a crime. However, the evaluation of whether certain conduct constitutes a crime worthy of expulsion from office lies solely with Congress, making this formal ousting process a wholly political calculation, as opposed to being carried out by the letter of the law.</p> <p>Besides the existence of an offense upon which to base the impeachment request, political scientists point that for Congress to willingly remove a president, two other factors are crucial: political consensus about who will step in as the replacement, and low popularity, leading to widespread public demonstrations. For now, Jair Bolsonaro is <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/05/23/way-oust-bolsonaro-not-impeachment-electoral-court/">safe on both counts</a>.</p> <p>“Finding a reason is very easy, as Brazil&#8217;s experience [with impeachment] tells us: Dilma Rousseff&#8217;s case, for instance, was on a technicality. In Mr. Bolsonaro’s case, with his management of the pandemic, the shady links to paramilitary police mafias, the behavior of his sons, finding a reason to justify an impeachment would be relatively easy. The point is to have a consensus in the political environment, in Congress, that the impeachment is desirable for the country and for the political system itself,” analyses political scientist Bruno Carazza, a professor at private research institution Ibmec.</p> <h2>Support from Congress</h2> <p>While Mr. Bolsonaro has taken part in protests against Congress, standing arm-in-arm with supporters demanding parliament be shut down, this has not necessarily affected the pragmatic view most members of Congress have toward him.</p> <p>According to regular surveys carried out by financial services firm XP Investimentos, President Bolsonaro has always kept a safe margin of support to avoid the risk of impeachment. Were Rodrigo Maia to decide to open proceedings to remove Mr. Bolsonaro from office, the head of state would be able to block the case with one-third of votes from Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>At his lowest point of support among members of the lower house, Mr. Bolsonaro had 35 percent in his favor — this has since increased.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3504317"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>“One explanation is the harmony between the agenda of both Mr. Bolsonaro and Congress. Lawmakers largely support the conservative platform of the government and [Economy Minister] Paulo Guedes&#8217; economic plan, starting with House Speaker Rodrigo Maia,&#8221; says Mr. Carazza.&nbsp;</p> <h2>No popular pressure in favor of impeachment</h2> <p>The president’s staunch denialism had a significant impact on his public popularity during the early weeks and months of the Covid-19 pandemic. After Mr. Bolsonaro called the disease a &#8220;little flu,&#8221; Brazilians across the country joined in on pot-banging protests from their window sills for two straight weeks, calling for the president to be removed. Crucially, however, these demonstrations didn&#8217;t make it to the streets, thus diminishing their impact.&nbsp;</p> <p>“At his worst moment, the pandemic made a street demonstration movement unfeasible, shielding him from popular pressure,” notes Mr. Carazza.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3504150"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3236266"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>Now, despite recording over 100,000 deaths from Covid-19, Jair Bolsonaro has regained his approval rates. However, his <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/08/14/despite-pandemic-mismanagement-bolsonaro-approval-ratings-go-up/">support base has changed</a>. While losing shares of the middle class, he has gained the support of poorer families due to the government&#8217;s program of paying an emergency salary to the unemployed and informal workers.</p> <p>With around 30 percent of approval, Mr. Bolsonaro is safeguarded from impeachment. Traditionally, in order to seriously put their offices at risk, Brazilian presidents need to slip to around 10 percent of popular support.

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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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