Bolsonaro's Erratic Behavior on the Covid-19 Threat Increases His Political Isolation

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro changed his approach to the Covid-19 pandemic in a speech on March 31, adopting a more moderate tone and trying to find a balance between saving lives and keeping jobs. Bolsonaro had been in denial of the grim reality of the Covid-19 threat, though the relief of his change, of course, was short-lived. In the days following his address on national radio and TV—which had been highly praised for its call for national unity—Bolsonaro then shared videos of his supporters on his social media platforms calling for the quick reopening of the economy. He then lost much of the credit he had won by sharing videos calling for the quick reopening of the economy on social media.

This quick change in message shortly after Bolsonaro's more moderate statement can be explained largely by his need to keep his conservative supporters, who make up about 33 percent of the population, mobilized. Not only do his supporters reject a more moderate approach to the coronavirus emergency, but such an approach serves to strongly undermine their political activism, which has been the basis of Bolsonaro’s core popularity. Bolsonaro aims to please his group of supporters, as other regional populist leaders have done, and as a result, it seems as though he will not alter his hardline statements significantly. As part of his populist DNA, Bolsonaro feels comfortable in the midst of controversy.

Another motive for Bolsonaro's opposition to social distancing and other measures to address the Covid-19 threat is his overriding concern for the economy. The economic crisis is likely to worsen in the medium- to long-term, and Bolsonaro is trying to build a narrative that can minimize further economic damage. In the last months of 2019, before the explosion of this crisis, he was increasingly confident that the economic plans and strategy defined and executed by Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes would produce steady and increasing growth beginning in late 2020 and into 2021. This hope is now clearly dead as the economic consequences of the global pandemic are expected to be grave in Asia, Europe, and North America, and could be yet worse in Brazil, Latin America, and the rest of the developing world.

Additionally, public opinion has changed dramatically in the last month. The population’s concerns with maintaining the country’s economic growth that had haltingly begun in 2019 have now morphed into concerns over Covid-19 and surviving the economic crisis.

The first case of the Covid-19 virus in Latin America was reported in Brazil on February 26, imported from Italy by a businessman returning home to São Paolo. On March 7, the first death from the virus in Latin America was recorded in Argentina. Brazil recorded its first death on March 17, even though the Brazilian Ministry of Health informed the public that the first death had actually occurred months before, on January 23. This information was changed by the Ministry of Health 24 hours later, informing that there had been a mistake on the data and that March 17 would be considered the date of the first death, going back in considering March 17 as the first date.

Public Reaction to Bolsonaro’s Narrative

Brazil now has over 12,000 active Covid-19 cases, by far the highest number in all of the Western Hemisphere, with the sole exception of the United States. By continuing to minimize the importance of the coronavirus and the widely-recognized urgent need to impose social distancing and more extreme measures in many urban locations such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasilia, Bolsonaro finds himself in open conflict with more than 80 percent of the Brazilian population that have already accepted the professional assessment of Brazilian medical specialists on the urgent threat of Covid-19. By maintaining this narrative now, Bolsonaro appears to be vainly hoping that the number of deaths in the country will not reach Italian or U.S. levels. However, the scenarios and models produced nationally and internationally indicate that Brazil is likely to suffer grave consequences from the virus, and the president’s already low level of support is likely to decrease further.

In a poll published by XP Investments and Polling on April 3, Bolsonaro reached the highest percentage of public disapproval since he took office—42 percent. Minister of Health Luiz Mandetta, who has led the Brazilian government’s technical work on the crisis—and who has publicly questioned the president’s public statements—has popular support at a level of 76 percent according to the poll published by Datafolha on the same day. This has put Bolsonaro and Mandetta on a collision course with Mandetta strongly advocating for restrictive measures and Bolsonaro continuing to minimize the crisis. Mandetta’s work at the federal level has helped bolster state-level responses by the country’s governors, who in the states of São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, and Minas Gerais have imposed their own measures, including social distancing, partial lock-downs, and quarantines.

Mandetta's leadership has quickly turned into a political controversy. During the first year of the Bolsonaro administration, Mandetta was an almost unknown and unnoticed minister. He has, in recent weeks, acquired a growing national following, quickly becoming one of the pillars of the government, alongside Ministers Paulo Guedes (Economy) and Sérgio Moro (Justice and Public Security).

Behind the scenes, Mandetta is also now being seen as a potential candidate for the presidency in 2022, given his leading role in confronting Covid-19. Although the mention of his name as a potential contender is more speculative than anything else at this time, more and more opinion-makers are remarking on his leadership potential.

Mandetta’s emerging leadership serves as more than just an inconvenient bother for the president, who has said he likes to have team members who “work together.” Those who do not, he has tended to consider opponents. The friction between Bolsonaro and Mandetta has created an impasse since the same administration has two opposing views at the same time. On the other hand, Mandetta is unlikely to resign after gaining the political influence he has in this brief period with the Coronavirus crisis. In addition to popular prestige, Minister Mandetta has the support of an important part of Congress, key governors, and even the judiciary. Rodrigo Maia, the lower house speaker, has declared that Mandetta has the full support of the House of Representatives as well as the Senate.

If Bolsonaro were to fire Mandetta, the backlash from public opinion would be considerable, as a majority of the Brazilian public recognizes the threat hanging over the country and its economy. Additionally, Bolsonaro's political isolation would increase with respect to members of Congress, governors, and the Federal Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro’s increased isolation has also been reflected in declining public support with demonstrations over the past 10 days, where citizens banged their pans from the window of their apartments whenever the president made a public statement. This is something that neither he nor his fierce supporters could have imagined happening a few months ago. There has even been some press speculation on the possibility of a formal impeachment of Bolsonaro for endangering the lives of Brazilian citizens, though this is still a distant possibility as an impeachment process would last months. Besides, even serious talk of an impeachment process would give Bolsonaro a boost by allowing him to claim that the establishment wants to overthrow him, further mobilizing his supporters. Another factor that plays against his impeachment is the general absence to date of serious street protests, since an impeachment process would, naturally, involve a general demonstration of dissatisfaction from the society, as in the previous two impeachments occurred in Brazil: Fernando Collor in 1992 and Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

Potential Outcome

If Bolsonaro continues his inconsistent and openly irresponsible behavior in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, he will become further isolated politically, have increasing trouble governing, and see his popularity continue to decrease. With the eventual end of the pandemic, the social environment would be openly averse to the government, due mainly to the increase in unemployment and poverty. In the recent past, the presidents that faced most political problems were those going through severe economic crises, as is likely to occur under Bolsonaro’s term. Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 amidst an intense inflationary period and severe fiscal problems; Dilma Rousseff led the country to a recession and paid a high political price for that. What will happen to Bolsonaro remains to be seen. The economic difficulties might not be his direct fault. But his initial questionable decisions on immediate responses to the earliest appearance of Covid-19 in Latin America already appear to leave Brazil less prepared than most of the countries of the region to confront the greatest public health crisis to face the world in the modern era. This could result in Bolsonaro paying a hefty political cost in midterm elections in October 2020 and presidential elections two years later, not to mention the thousands of additional deaths from Covid-19 that could well result from his having left the country so late in the game and ill-prepared.

Thiago de Aragão is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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