/ 13 February 2019

Brazil’s out-of-action president tries to stay in control

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro talks with Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Gomes de Freitas at Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro talks with Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Gomes de Freitas at Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo. (Brazilian Presidency/Handout via Reuters)

Brazil is going through a rudderless period as President Jair Bolsonaro lies in a hospital bed following stomach surgery, with high-priority political issues such as pension reform on the back burner until he recovers, analysts and observers say.

The limbo, which has lasted more than two weeks, might finally be coming to an end this week, according to reports.

But it has exposed tensions and jockeying for power within his young government, which took office at the beginning of January — including notably between Bolsonaro and his vice president, Hamilton Mourao, who briefly served as acting leader.

“Do you want to kill me?” Bolsonaro asked Mourao in a telephone call at the weekend, the latter said, making clear the president was joking, according to multiple reports in major Brazilian media.

Political observers in Brazil, however, perceived that as just the latest in a series of growing signs of disunity and of a troubling absence of leadership in Latin America’s biggest economy.

“There is a kind of power vacuum in these weeks with the president’s lengthening absence while in hospital,” one political analyst, Thomaz Favaro, with the political risk consultancy Control Risks, told AFP.

There was “a bit of worry” among hundreds of officials appointed to run government ministries, agencies and state-run companies on how to implement Bolsonaro’s agenda, Favaro said.

Bolsonaro, 63, has been out of action since a January 28 operation to remove a colostomy bag and seal intestines perforated in September 2018 by a lone assailant who stabbed him while he was campaigning.

His recovery has taken longer than expected. But Bolsonaro insists he is keeping up with his duties from his hospital bed.

Ailing ‘captain’

A far-right former paratrooper who sees himself as the “captain” of his government and country, Bolsonaro has been in office for just over six weeks.

In hospital, he has sought to project an image of a leader still at the helm despite being weakened, drip-fed nutrients and with restricted visitor access. On social media, he comments on various political issues, and posts pictures of meetings with his officials wearing face masks for hygiene.

His spokesman has spoken daily of the president’s improving health — even as the president’s expected discharge date was pushed back repeatedly because of vomiting, fluid build-up and then a bout of pneumonia.

Bolsonaro is now deemed medically well enough to be released from hospital from Wednesday, but the decision rests with the presidency, his chief surgeon Antonio Luiz Macedo told the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper.

When he does get out, Bolsonaro will have two priorities to tackle: setting out the contours of a much-anticipated reform of Brazil’s unsustainable pension system — and re-imposing his authority on a government riven by headstrong officials.

Chief among the latter is Mourao, a retired general who is said by Brazilian political columnists to have irritated Bolsonaro’s entourage — especially his sons, three of whom are also politicians — by expanding his power base and influence through meetings with congressional heavyweights and diplomats and comments to the media.

The vice president particularly enraged them by publicly questioning the anti-crime justification of a decree Bolsonaro signed to ease gun ownership laws, and Bolsonaro’s controversial promise to eventually move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The question Bolsonaro shot Mourao on Saturday was seen to stem from that friction.

The Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper lamented the “administrative paralysis” caused by Bolsonaro’s extended hospitalisation and what it saw as his sons’ undue influence.

“The government today is run by someone not in sufficient health to do so, and who suffers direct and broad influence from his sons — who received no vote to be president nor occupy any ministerial posts,” it said in an editorial.

Struggle over pension changes

The pension issue promises further struggles behind the scenes.

Bolsonaro won office partly by wooing investors with a pledge to overhaul of Brazil’s limping, protectionist economy. That task has been largely delegated to his economy minister, Paulo Guedes, a US-trained free-marketeer.

Guedes has publicly toed the line set by Bolsonaro. But rumors of tensions between him and the president’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, have not been dissipated by ostentatious pictures of the two lunching together.

And Guedes and Bolsonaro have differed on basic principles of the pension reform. Lorenzoni said the package would be unveiled at the end of this week before being sent to Congress, but only after Bolsonaro gave his green light.

According to a leak last week of an early draft proposal, the minimum retirement age would be hiked to 65 years for both men and women. Bolsonaro initially wanted a softer regime of 62 years for men and 57 for women, but is said to be ready to settle for 65 and 60 respectively.

Guedes was to receive a finalised proposal Tuesday.

The reform will require changes to Brazil’s constitution, to be voted by a congressional super majority. If it is passed, it is expected to yield savings of up to one trillion reais ($273-billion) over a decade, according to Guedes.

Currently in Brazil, workers can make early retirement after contributing for 35 years in the case of men and 30 years for women.

© Agence France-Presse