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The road ahead for Brazil.

Tom Leverett analyses the impact of president Bolsonaro's Covid policy on indigenous communities and looks at the president's chances of re-election in 2022.

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Image Credit: Marcos Correa

South America’s largest country has enjoyed its status as a global ‘rising power’ in the last decade but what can we learn from the Coronavirus fallout and recent local elections about where the country is headed?

Brazil has the world’s second-deadliest Covid outbreak, with over a million cases in the state of São Paulo alone. Some of the blame has to be directed at the president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his lacklustre delayed approach to controlling the virus. Bolsonaro who had the virus himself in July, mocks the use of masks and has vetoed making them obligatory in public, as well as dismissing self-isolation as “for the weak”. Bolsonaro has marginalised medical experts, replacing them with ex-military personnel. He relieved the health minister of his duties after the minister encouraged everyone to stay inside. The president continues to deny the science of the virus, down-playing its magnitude even as they now face the prospect of a second wave. Bolsonaro claims that predictions of a second wave are merely ‘gossip’.

The pandemic has exacerbated the already drastic inequalities in Brazil, with Brazil’s indigenous population and the 13 million that live in favelas being hit the hardest. Local governments struggle to impose their own restrictions without the help from the federal government. In some favelas, local drug gangs initially enforced their own lockdowns, with threat of retaliation to those who failed to comply. In a favela in Rio, the local drug trafficking gang has even been handing out soap and telling people to wash their hands before entering the favela.

The indigenous communities in Brazil have been particularly hard hit by the virus and the government’s neglect. In August, the Supreme Federal Court ruled against the government, recognising Bolsonaro’s failure to protect the indigenous population during the pandemic. The court has since forced the government to employ protective measures, including removing illegal miners and loggers who spread the virus in their territories.

The results from the first round of municipal elections in Brazil indicate that the public have started to cast doubts about their leader, Jair Bolsonaro, and his chances in 2022. With races declared and runoff elections are set, it looks like the centre-right parties will make the most significant gains in these city council and mayoral elections. However, the main takeaway from this first round of elections is the miscarriage of the candidates that were endorsed by the president himself.

Bolsonaro’s approval didn’t help his ally, Celso Russomanno, in the election for Mayor in São Paulo against the incumbent. The president’s cousin, Marcos Bolsonaro, and the president's ex-wife, Rogéria Bolsonaro, were amongst those who suffered huge defeats in their races. The president’s son, Carlos, managed to hold onto his councilorship in Rio, but received significantly less votes than his last election.

This news comes as a record number of women, people of colour and other minorities contest seats, which is seen as a push-back against discriminatory discourses, perpetuated by Bolsonaro himself and his inflammatory rhetoric. The president is infamous for bigoted remarks that he would rather his son die than be a homosexual and saying to a congresswoman that she was too ugly to be raped.

The number of military officials running for office in 2020 is also at a record high. With the history of Brazil’s military dictatorship still so raw, military officials haven’t been particularly welcome in Brazilian politics since the first election under Brazil’s new constitution in 1989. As a former army captain himself, Bolsonaro has opened the door for military personnel to return to the political landscape, a notion that unnerves those who remember Brazil’s violent past. There’s a strong military presence in his cabinet.

The president is leading the country as an independent at the moment, after leaving his party in 2019, which many see as part of the reason that he’s struggled to get his allies into office in these elections. Bolsonaro won his presidential election in 2018 by taking advantage of the national fallout from vote-buying scandals and bribery scandals that plagued the incumbent Workers’ Party. Running on a conservative family values and anti-establishment platform, Bolsonaro’s administration has marked a sharp contrast to the social democratic Brazil he inherited, but he remains popular for his hard-line stance on crime in cities and a growing economy. Surprisingly, much of Bolsonaro’s support comes from the youth, who support his authoritarian stance on crime. They see his pro-military and pro-torture approach as the way to combat Brazil’s horrific crime rate.

The loss of his North American counterpart, Donald Trump, will surely come as a heavy blow to Bolsonaro’s far-right agenda. His admiration and endorsement of Trump will leave him isolated as the presidency falls to Joe Biden, who Bolsonaro is yet to congratulate.

With the US presidential election touted as a “moment of truth for right-wing populists”, the disillusionment of a campaign which aims to rile up the voice of the people seems less captivating when faced with the daily realities of problems like Covid. Bolsonaro’s Brazilian far-right is unlikely to be successful in his 2022 re-election race if countries follow the US narrative of upending rebellious populism and replacing it with predictability.

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