Will Brazilians Ever Dump Bolsonaro?
Brazil’s president downplayed the risk of COVID-19, delayed the purchase of lifesaving vaccines, and dithered as citizens died in Manaus—but his hold on power remains strong.
RIO DE JANEIRO—A caravan made up of dozens of cars moved in a neat file through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Huge banners, scrawled with “Impeachment now!” and “Vaccine for all!” hung out the windows of some, flapping in the wind. Car horns wailed in unison, and masked protesters shouted, “Out with Bolsonaro!”
Similar convoys of protesters were seen in more than 20 Brazilian cities in late January as angry Brazilians took to the streets to voice growing frustration with President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The backlash came on the heels of shocking images of patients dying in Manaus amid oxygen shortages in hospitals, as the Amazon city was hit by a brutal second wave linked to a new COVID-19 variant.
“Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic was catastrophic, especially in relation to Manaus,” said Eduardo Grin, a researcher at the think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo. “It was really emblematic of the government’s mismanagement during the pandemic.”
So far, Bolsonaro has dodged the political fallout of the pandemic, despite what many see as a botched handling of one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks. The virus has infected more than 9.5 million Brazilians and claimed the lives of 230,000 people. All along, Bolsonaro has downplayed the virus, gaining global notoriety with his rejection of lockdowns, fervent anti-vaccine rhetoric, and promotion of unproven remedies like hydroxychloroquine.
Through it all, the far-right populist has seemed to maintain steady support among both voters and political allies. Much of his political resilience has been thanks to an emergency cash-transfer scheme that became a lifeline for millions of Brazilians whose incomes were wiped out by lockdowns. In September 2020, even as the pandemic raged on, Bolsonaro saw his approval ratings rise to their highest level since he took office in January 2019.
“The emergency aid was a really significant amount; families started getting an income that they had never had before,” said Talita Tanscheit, a political scientist and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “So it had a big impact on Bolsonaro’s popularity.” But the emergency cash has dried up as Brazilian lawmakers discuss extending the transfers against a backdrop of growing worries over a fiscal crisis. This has left many recipients with no other source of income as Brazil’s economy continues to sputter along and a recovery appears to be a long way off.
As the COVID-19 crisis took a deadly new turn in Manaus, backlash against Bolsonaro started mounting as it became clear his administration knew hospitals in the remote city were running out of oxygen supplies but did little to prepare for the looming catastrophe. Even though Bolsonaro has said his government did all it could, the Supreme Court authorized an investigation last week into the role of the health ministry during the crisis.
At the same time, a sluggish and chaotic start to vaccinations—which many also blame on Bolsonaro—has added further pressure. For months, the vaccine was at the center of a bitter political standoff between Bolsonaro and São Paulo Gov. João Doria, a political rival who many see as a likely candidate in next year’s presidential elections.
The start of immunization marks a major defeat for Bolsonaro, Grin said. “Bolsonaro’s political narrative of denialism, his claims that the vaccine does harm—that narrative lost out. It’s been defeated because the vaccine happened despite him. Vaccination began, and the population wants the vaccine.”
A recent poll seemed to echo this: Some 79 percent of Brazilians said they wanted to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Datafolha, a leading Brazilian pollster. “It has left Bolsonaro politically weakened at a moment when he has few resources available to mobilize his base,” Grin added.
Supplies of the vaccine have been slow to trickle into the country of 211 million people as a fierce second wave gains traction. Brazil has been left heavily dependent on supplies from China, which Bolsonaro ridiculed for months and vowed not to buy. This past October, Bolsonaro rejected a deal to buy 46 million doses of a vaccine developed by a Chinese company in partnership with a research center in São Paulo.
“The Brazilian people will not be anyone’s guinea pig,” Bolsonaro said at the time, commenting on the Chinese-produced CoronaVac vaccine.
Under mounting pressure, Bolsonaro has tried to repair some of the damage his comments inflicted on Brazil’s ties with the world’s leading vaccine-makers. Last week, he appeared in a rare photo-op, shaking hands with a Chinese official and thanking the country for fast-tracking vaccine supplies to Brazil. The government has also been scrambling to secure supplies from Russia and India.
“It’s desperation knocking at the door,” Tanscheit said. “He’s trying to walk back from the diplomatic spats he created, with countries like China, India, Russia. … It’s an attempt at a peace offering.”
There are also signs that Bolsonaro is eager to wrest back control of the vaccine narrative, according to Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. After rejecting vaccination for months, Bolsonaro recently declared that “it is Brazil’s vaccine. It doesn’t belong to any governor,” he wrote in an email.
“Don’t underestimate Bolsonaro’s ability to shift course,” added Winter, especially as polls show the percentage of Brazilians who want the vaccine are rising following the crisis in Manaus. “We already see his government trying to assume some credit for the vaccine.”
Still, surging infections and sluggish vaccination rates are hitting Bolsonaro’s popularity: A Jan. 20-21 Datafolha poll found 40 percent of Brazilians rated his government as bad or terrible, sharply up from 32 percent the month prior. Just 29 percent saw Bolsonaro’s administration as good or excellent—his lowest approval rating since he took office. A month earlier, some 37 percent said they approved of the president.
His support among the poor has deteriorated sharply with the end of the emergency cash-transfer scheme. Disapproval of the president among those with the lowest income jumped from 27 percent to 41 percent, according to Datafolha.
Now, if already eye-watering unemployment rates begin to climb, the economic reality could start to sink in and further hit his approval ratings, said Ecio Costa, an economics professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast.
“We are now seeing a situation where the emergency aid is ending, which has a huge impact economically and politically,” Costa said. “It could reverse all the positive impacts that were generated last year through the program.”
Yet the majority of Brazilians still don’t want the president removed from office, with a January poll recently showing 53 percent reject impeachment. Bolsonaro’s core support base, about a quarter of voters, also appears unwavering, Tanscheit said.
Bolsonaro’s most steadfast supporters tend to be conservative, wealthier, religious Brazilians preoccupied with issues like crime, the economy, corruption, and family values. For many of them, the president is doing his best to keep Brazil open and the economy afloat.
A large number of poorer Brazilians also see the president as defending “their right to work for a living, and earn for their families,” Winter argues. “They see him as the only thing standing between another lockdown and hunger in their households.”
“Unbelievable as it may sound, I think it’s still unclear whether Bolsonaro will suffer any lasting political damage from the pandemic,” he added. “Bolsonaro has done everything possible to distance himself from responsibility for the pandemic, and to some extent that has worked.”
Politically, Bolsonaro’s future also remains unclear. With few allies in Congress, the former army captain relies on the fragile support of centrist and center-right parties informally known as the Centrão. This bloc is known for demanding lucrative and influential government posts in exchange for shielding Bolsonaro from impeachment.
Until now, what helped Bolsonaro maintain the Centrão’s support was his focus on the economy and a broader conservative agenda shared by many of these political actors. But there are signs of trouble brewing and weakening support among these lawmakers, especially as hope for a swift economic recovery dims.
“It seems there has been a rift among these political actors,” Tanscheit said. “Because from the moment that Bolsonaro’s stance starts hurting Brazil economically, this hits these lawmakers as well.”
Amid mounting calls for impeachment—and criticism over wasteful government spending during the pandemic—supporting Bolsonaro has become more difficult. In a bid to quell calls for his removal, some allies—including members of the Centrão—are urging Bolsonaro to replace his current health minister (one of many over the past year) in a bid to distance himself from the crisis’s fallout.
As lawmakers returned to work this week, Bolsonaro’s opponents heckled the populist leader, calling his mismanagement of the pandemic “genocidal.” Yet even as calls for his impeachment mount, a crucial power shift in Brazil’s Congress may have strengthened Bolsonaro’s political hand. This week, lawmakers elected a candidate backed by the president as the next leader of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies—a win that could dramatically ease impeachment pressure and strengthen Bolsonaro’s influence.
“The political game is still wide open,” Tanscheit said. “Anything could happen.”