Brazil has a history of electing clowns. In 2010, Francisco Oliveira Silva, a television comedian and children’s entertainer, was elected as one of the federal deputies for Sao Paulo, garnering more than 1.3 million votes. His slogan? It can’t get any worse than it already is. Seven years later, Jair Bolsonaro crash-landed onto the political centre-stage — a reminder, if ever there was one, not to tempt fate.
Since then, Bolsonaro has gone above and beyond the role of jester, eroding away any respectability of office with his lewd jokes and unabashed racism. An increasingly erratic presence, his attempts at governance have provoked laughs from across the political spectrum. And while we are all entitled to a sense of humour, what happens when the punchline is democracy itself?
His supporters would have you believe it sensationalism. To them, he is like a drunk uncle at a family barbecue — bumbling but harmless. For the rest of the population, he is a dictator-in-waiting, flanked by generals who have grown tired of chomping at the democratic bit.
Indeed, Bolsonaro’s frustration with his own government and the democratic process has become particularly pronounced over the last month. On the 15th March, he could be found greeting throngs of supporters, following a call-to-arms to “defend the President” against the scrutiny of Congress.
That swathes of people turned out despite strict warnings from the Ministry of Health about the risk of COVID-19 contagion is testament to the fervor he inspires amongst his base.
Things reached a crescendo last Tuesday during an address to the nation in which Bolsonaro abandoned the government line on how best to mitigate the outbreak of coronavirus.
Over the course of five minutes, he skidded from one scapegoat to the next, attacking everyone from state governors to the media at large for instilling a climate of “hysteria” over COVID-19. The virus, he touts, is nothing more than a light flu, which would have no impact on a “former athlete” such as himself (such a claim is false on both counts). He concluded by urging Brazilians to return to schools and work, in effect sabotaging the nation-wide attempt at social distancing.
In a rare act of unity, 26 of Brazil’s 27 state governors met to move against him, advocating the need for continued social distancing within their respective regions. Former allies such as Ronaldo Caiado (state governor of Goias) severed ties with the President all together, describing his behaviour as “appalling”.
A tearful Bolsonaro has since responded by looking to his military cronies for backing — among them General Walter Braga Neto, newly appointed Chief of Staff. In a truly ingratiating move, Neto took it upon himself yesterday to undermine the Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, mid-press conference, while dropping veiled hints of his potential dismissal.
Such fraying relations between a Head of State and congress are not uncommon in the Trumpian era. However, they do have sobering overtones in a nation whose last military dictatorship is within living memory.
It’s a legacy that’s already been aggressively revised under the current President. This time last year, Bolsonaro sent a letter to the UN denying that a coup d’etat ever took place on the 31st March 1964. Instead, he claimed, the military takeover was a “necessary move to fight the growing threat of communism in Brazil”.
Compare this unnecessary action in 2019 with the lack of action in 2020, and we have an insight into the hollowness of his far-right ideology. Like his ally in the White House, it’s clear that Jair Bolsonaro is only good at responding to imagined threats, rather than real, impending ones.
Climate change, pandemics, and rising global debt cannot be reduced to moral crusades and as such tend to infuriate men like Bolsonaro. In response, he lights all the political bonfires possible to avoid having to deal with them.
However, with the economy sputtering and unemployment on the rise, this particular bonfire has the potential to blaze even larger than the Amazonian fires that engulfed much of north-west Brazil last August.
In positioning himself against the national quarantine, Bolsonaro flinches away from assuming any responsibility, preparing for a possible “I told you so moment” when the inevitable post-corona recession hits.
At such a time, he will no doubt point to the governors and institutions of state who, in acting to save lives, allowed the economy to stumble.
How the wider population will view this is the great unknown. Jair Bolsonaro might be politically illiterate, but he has proven himself perfectly adept at inciting extreme emotions in the electorate. With the backing of his uniformed pals guaranteed, could Jair have the last laugh when it comes to Brazilian democracy? That remains to be seen.