Bolsonaro’s Mild balance of public distrust and political alliances

  • + Bolsonaro’s pandemic response has resulted in impeachment requests.
  • + However, his allies have been elected to preside over both Chambers.
  • + His popularity loss has not translated into insufficient political support.
Bolsonaro cumple cien días de gobierno y decepciona a los ...

Why is Bolsonaro’s heat level mild?

Answer: His popularity is taking a hit as a result of his mishandling of the pandemic and the slow rollout of the vaccination campaign, while his position has been secured in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

Approval rates among the public regarding Bolsonaro’s performance are currently following a downward trend, falling from a stable 37% in December to 31% in January. This trend is being mirrored by the corresponding increase in rejection rates (from 32 to 40% in the same time period). 

Although complaints over Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic over the past year have led to the filing of more than 60 impeachment requests, there are several factors that have recently sparked even stronger negative attitudes towards him. Among these are the termination of the Covid-19 welfare package previously implemented by Bolsonaro himself to soften the impact of the pandemic upon the most vulnerable, his failure to procure large amounts of vaccines against the virus, and the recent unveiling of the high Covid-19 death rates in the North of the country due to insufficient oxygen supplies. 

While these factors seem to be freezing Bolsonaro’s voter support, his political horse-trading abilities appear to be succeeding at cosying him up to power. As of this Tuesday, Bolsonaro’s allies Arthur Lira and Rodrigo Pacheco have been elected as Speakers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively. This makes it likely for the recent requests for impeachment to be rejected, just as the previous 60 were.  

Who is changing Bolsonaro’s temperature?

Answer: On the one hand, an increasingly discontent electorate and the loss of his main regional ally, and on the other, his ability to secure new breeding grounds for support as well as the lack of a clear substitute.

As mentioned before, there are multiple factors that are earning Bolsonaro icy detractors among the electorate, including right-wing voters that used to support him. Firstly, the generous Covid-19 welfare package that Bolsonaro implemented to help poor and informal workers to face the consequences of the pandemic has come to an end.

This program transferred 600 monthly reais – about one quarter of the average monthly income in Brazil – to around 65 million Brazilians until September. It was then extended until December, but the amount was halved to 300 reais per month due to financing constraints. The end of this program, to which Bolsonaro’s stable approval rates were partly attributed, has now left millions of Brazilians without the means to secure their livelihoods during the pandemic. 

Secondly, Bolsonaro’s government failed to secure deals with Pfizer and BioNTech and other Covid-19 vaccine producers when it had the chance. Instead, more resources were allocated to acquiring hydroxycloroquine and cloroquine to treat Covid-19 patients -in spite of widespread scientific doubt over their effectiveness- and to constructing the necessary infrastructure to domestically produce the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

However, the lack of a key ingredient to produce the vaccine has made it impossible for domestic production to take off. This has left Brasil -the country with the second highest number of Covid-19 deaths after the US-with insufficient doses that they’ve only been able to procure from China’s Sinovac, which presents an efficacy just over the 50% minimum threshold authorized by the Brazilian health authorities.

Lastly, the recent spike of cases in the northern Amazonian district of Manaus has brought out the collapse of the health system in the region. Their insufficient oxygen supply has forced the district to turn to the black market or to Venezuela, and as a result Covid-19 patients have been systematically dying.

This has spurred rejection among Brazilian voters and it has even prompted a preliminary investigation into both Bolsonaro and his health minister, Pazuello, for whom this would be the second open investigation into the matter.

This has all added to a recent history of neglect towards the seriousness of the pandemic in the country. The prioritization of economic welfare over health and the failure to place health experts at the lead have already resulted in over nine million Covid-19 cases and has cost the lives of over 200,000 Brazilians. And this is according to the Ministry of Health’s official figures, which have been suspected of understating data. 

The resulting discontent has exacerbated the already existing disenchantment among Bolsonaro’s 2018 voters, as he is considered to have moved away from the anti-corruption pledges that characterized his electoral promises. Even far-right voters are now turning against him due to his recent pacts with centre-right politicians. Public protests and repeated calls for impeachment are the reflection of all of this.

It’s also important to consider that this is all happening in a context where Bolsonaro has lost his main ally in the region. Biden’s victory has generated a significant distance between Bolsonaro’s position and the US’. In fact, Bolsonaro openly supported Trump in his re-election efforts and endorsed his theory that the elections had been fraudulent. He was then one of the last ones to congratulate Biden, only once the Electoral College had certified his victory.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s political horse-trading is keeping him away from the cold. He has managed to secure a broad base of political support, to the extent that both Chambers are now presided by his allies. The allocation of millions of dollars to the districts and projects of several senators’ and lawmakers’ seems to have helped with this.

Furthermore, his prioritization of the economy over health as the main strategy during the pandemic has solidified his popularity among big private sector actors, who are likely to perpetuate their support.

All of this, coupled with the lack of a clear strong alternative to Bolsonaro, as well as the critical health state of the country, explain the fact that even those who oppose Bolsonaro deem an impeachment unlikely. His strongest sources of opposition are among the voting public, but have for now not transcended onto the realm of political power, hence why Bolsonaro still remains out of the cold.

What is driving Bolsonaro?

Answer: His ambition to maintain a strong position in political spheres as well as to prioritize the economy to ratify his support base among private sector actors.

Bolsonaro’s Covid-19 strategy has prioritized the economy over public health from the beginning, in an attempt to become the leader who managed to safeguard the country’s economic prosperity during the crisis. This can partly be explained by the fact that a significant share of his electorate consists of large private sector actors with an interest to preserve the economy. Another motivation comes from his ambition to maintain Brazil’s status as a rapidly growing economy, along with the increased leverage that comes with this within the international community. 

In order to achieve this, he has taken repeatedly strong stances, even defending his decisions when they were surrounded by controversy. In fact, this authoritative attitude has cost him not one, but two ministers of health. 

Bolsonaro removed Luiz Mandetta from the position over the latter’s insistence on imposing social distancing measures, deemed unnecessary by Bolsonaro. Nelson Teich then resigned after less than a month on the job due to similar disagreements over the health response to the pandemic, including Bolsonaro’s persistent promotion of hydrocloroquine and cloroquine as the main treatments to be administered to Covid-19 patients.

What is more, Bolsonaro’s cabinet blamed their failure to reach an agreement with Pfizer on the fact that the pharmaceutical company required them to sign a waiver freeing Pfizer of any liabilities that might result from the application of their vaccine. And although this has resulted in Brazil having to turn to China’s Sinovac in spite of Bolsonaro’s openly expressed distrust towards it, it seems far from the Brazilian President’s style to admit to making any mistakes. 

All in all, as long as his political horse-trading keeps succeeding at maintaining his position, he is likely to continue taking and defending these strong positions. This implies that there exists the possibility of his electoral support base shrinking even more, but whether or not it will be enough to push Bolsonaro into the cold will depend on whether a clear appealing alternative materializes itself.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: The interconnected nature of the world turns the national failure to address the pandemic into a public health threat for all.

The fast spread of the new variants of the virus – more notably the ones found in the UK, South Africa and Brazil – is testimony to the fact that a public health hazard in any one given country now poses a threat for all.

It is now imperative that the Covid-19 be tackled with as many tools as possible, and this includes the right medicines and vaccines. The failure of Bolsonaro’s government to be guided in its decisions by solid scientific evidence is therefore an obstacle in this sense. Not to mention the thousands of lives that are being lost in Brazil due to this neglect and the constant prioritization of the economy at all costs.

Moreover, as one of the countries with the largest surfaces of rain forest, Brazil’s actions vis-à-vis public health and the environment, which are inevitably interlinked, are also of concern to all. Bolsonaro’s presidency has sparked controversy around the world due to enormous contributions towards deforestation and the violation of indigenous communities’ rights as part of the continued efforts to prioritize economic growth. His actions have even been categorized as environmental crimes.

Lastly, the loss of the US as a main regional ally and the failure to secure other Covid-19 vaccines has increased Brazil’s dependency on China, both diplomatically and as a vaccine provider. This could have serious ramifications in terms of power balances in the upcoming G20. 

The evolution of all of these phenomena over the next few months will determine Bolsonaro’s temperature leading up to the 2022 presidential elections, for which he is still considered the most likely candidate to win. Should there continue to be no strong alternative, it seems unlikely that Bolsonaro will have any incentives to adjust his strategy towards the public health crisis.