It’s a bad time for Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. With an election coming up next year, his poll numbers are dropping rapidly, with Brazilians increasingly dissatisfied with rising inflation and his poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He has consistently downplayed the severity of the virus, despite Brazil recording nearly 600 000 deaths. The supreme court is investigating his friends and allies for corruption, and there are talks in parliament about whether he should be impeached.
Bolsonaro’s supporters took to the streets of major cities this week to protest against his perceived enemies — including the courts, opposition parties and the senate — with some calling for the army to intervene to protect the president, which would amount to a military coup.
Bolsonaro has taken to criticising the country’s electoral commission, saying that the vote is being rigged against him. It is a variation of the tactic used by former United States president Donald Trump — for whom Bolsonaro has repeatedly expressed admiration — and, more recently, by Zambia’s former president Edgar Lungu. It didn’t work for either of them.
To understand more about what’s going on in South America’s most populous country, and what might happen next, The Continent spoke to João Bosco Monte, the head of the Brazil Africa Institute.
What do the protests of last week tell us about Bolsonaro’s support?
João Bosco Monte: Bolsonaro is something different in Brazilian politics. Very extreme right, conservative, looking to the Trump model. He has three or four key policies: he wants people to be able to carry guns, he wants to make abortion illegal, he is anti-LGBTQI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex] and he has made things harder for minority groups. These policies are popular with some voters, and he had their support from the beginning. But what we are seeing is that he has not been able to grow that support. Fewer people came to support him this week than predicted. They thought they could bring two million people, but they only brought around 125 000. His policies are not resonating with most Brazilians.
Can the political opposition mount a viable challenge in the next election?
The polls say, today, that Bolsonaro is likely to lose. The main opposition candidate is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, along with a few other candidates. Lula’s support is so strong at the moment that he could even win the election in the first round, so it might not go to a run-off election. Usually, leftist parties in Brazil are not organised in a single coalition, and fight among themselves, but these are not normal circumstances. The opposition have a common objective — removing Bolsonaro. But Bolsonaro doesn’t need anybody to beat him, because he beat himself. Every time he opens his mouth, every time he appears on camera, he brings an agenda to the public that fails to garner their support.
The president’s close allies are being investigated for corruption. What is the likelihood of the president himself being impeached, and would there be support in parliament for this?
There is a coalition of smaller parties called Centrão in Brazil’s National Congress. These parties are not particularly ideological but usually vote with the government, to grab whatever is possible in terms of government positions and budgets. So they support Bolsonaro for now, but if he starts to bleed they might rethink their position. And he is bleeding now, so the next few days and weeks are very important to see if they will keep supporting him or if they are out of his club.
What about the military?
Bolsonaro’s current minister of defence, Walter Braga Netto, was an army general. Normally it’s a civilian. He is very supportive of Bolsonaro. But the other generals — the heads of the army, air force and navy — are not supporting him. But we won’t see what happened in Guinea happening in Brazil. The critical players in this situation are not the military but the police. The local police in many places — the low-ranking police officers — many of them support Bolsonaro. This is something very important for us to consider. They have the guns, they can go to the street and do something. They won’t be able to keep Bolsonaro in power, but they can certainly do real damage to the democratic environment we have in Brazil.
This article first appeared on The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.