Beleaguered Bolsonaro moves to shore up support

A demonstrator shouts slogans during a protest in support of Jair Bolsonaro at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil’s president is hop Credit: Leo Correa/AP

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is focused on ensuring his political survival and is mobilising far-right supporters to help him do so as the coronavirus claims tens of thousands of lives in the country.

With less than one-third of Brazilians approving of Mr Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, and protests against him increasing, analysts say he is shoring up his base to shield himself from possible impeachment and to improve governability.

“He’s losing support and needs something to put in its place,” said Maurício Santoro, a professor of political science at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

“Bolsonaro needs people on the street defending him.”

Casting doubt on Covid-19 statistics has been a mainstay in far-right circles and Mr Bolsonaro has amplified such claims.

So far the disease has killed more than 36,000 Brazilians, although such information is now unavailable on the Brazilian Health Ministry’s website. It stopped publishing cumulative totals last Friday, the day after Brazil surpassed Italy to register the world’s third highest death toll.

After a backlash, a senior Health Ministry official told reporters on Monday that the body would restore the cumulative death toll to its website, as early as Tuesday, but with changes to the methodology for how daily deaths are tallied.

Critics complained that the extraordinary move to not report the death toll resembled tactics used by authoritarian regimes.

It came after months of Mr Bolsonaro downplaying Covid-19 and maintaining economic meltdown would inflict worse hardship than allowing the virus to run its course.

Pollster Datafolha found roughly 30% of Brazilians surveyed on May 25-26 rated Mr Bolsonaro as good or excellent and approved of his handling of the pandemic.

Bolsonaro foes, seeing weakness, have submitted more than 30 requests for impeachment to Congress, where so far they have been stalled by the lower house speaker.

Fans of two distinct soccer clubs hold a banner that reads in Portuguese “We are for Democracy,” as they joined forces for a recent anti-government protest in Sao Paulo Credit: Andre Penner/AP

The president’s allies hope energised supporters could make it costly to support such moves.

The muted support for Mr Bolsonaro was on display over the weekend, with protests against his government held in 20 cities while pro-government demonstrations were significantly smaller than prior weekends.

Mr Bolsonaro still enjoys considerable support on the far right. Backers in April were quick to join his call to defy social isolation recommendations even as the outbreak started exploding. They then echoed the president’s call to treat Covid-19 with chloroquine, which many doctors refuse to prescribe owing to a lack of evidence it can help, and the fear it may hurt some.

Mr Bolsonaro has tried to vitalise his base by joining weekend rallies in the capital that feature banners denouncing the Supreme Court and Congress, sometimes in lurid terms, for undermining his administration.

On May 31, he flew over the crowd in an Army helicopter and, after landing, rode into the plaza on horseback flanked by mounted military police.

Demonstrators holding a banner that reads “Dictatorship never more” protest against racism and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaroand in Sao Paulo on Sunday Credit: Andre Penner/AP

On Friday, he pledged to make it easier for police officers and servicemen to import guns for personal use, part of the far-right’s longstanding demand to make guns more accessible.

“What’s making Bolsonaro get more radical is the pandemic; some processes that existed before were accelerated. And he is being seen as he is,” said Adriana Dias, a researcher on far-right groups at University of Campinas. She noted Mr Bolsonaro never demonstrates empathy about the virus, including his infamous reply of “So what?” when asked about Brazil’s death toll surpassing China’s.

“That didn’t ring well with average Brazilians. That makes him even more dependent on the radicals,” Ms Dias said.