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Will Bolsonaro Survive the Pandemic?

With Brazil gripped by an escalating health and economic crisis, calls for President Jair Bolsonaro's impeachment are growing louder. Even if he survives the political storm, his reform agenda will not.

WASHINGTON, DC – After months of downplaying the severity of COVID-19, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has contracted it. His symptoms have so far been mild enough that he continues to conduct interviews and make public appearances, not least to project an image of strength. But, with the outbreak spinning out of control and the economy in free-fall, that image is crumbling fast, and calls for impeachment are growing louder. At stake is not only Bolsonaro’s presidency, but also the lives and livelihoods of millions of Brazilians, both now and in the future.

As of July 13, Brazil has reported more than 1.8 million cases of COVID-19 and 72,000 deaths. While the United States still holds the record for daily infections, setting a new one nearly every day, many believe that Brazil is significantly underreporting its numbers. What is known is that the daily death toll continues to rise, and the mortality rate among the young is significantly higher than it is among Brazil’s developed-country peers. Experts estimate that the pandemic may infect 34 million Brazilians.

“Death is everyone’s destiny,” Bolsonaro recently quipped. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be delayed. In the last few decades alone, Brazil successfully confronted malaria, Zika, HIV, and swine flu (H1N1), thanks to effective cooperation between its government and health-care system and the World Health Organization.

Bolsonaro, by contrast, has dismissed the threat posed by COVID-19, driven out two qualified health ministers who disagreed with him, and announced that he is considering withdrawing from the WHO after the pandemic. When state governments have imposed their own isolation orders – which polls show have wide popular support – he has condemned and even sabotaged them.

Domestic economic conditions are also bleak. Bolsonaro won the 2018 election on the promise that he would pull the country out of its worst-ever economic recession, while addressing rampant crime and corruption. Instead, Latin America’s largest economy is reeling again. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Brazil’s economy will shrink by 5.3% this year. A central-bank survey of economists predicts a 7% contraction.

Investors are running for the hills. In the past, they were compensated for Brazil’s turbulent politics by higher interest rates. But the central bank has repeatedly cut interest rates this year, and capital flight is now hitting record levels, with tens of billions of dollars in international and local outflows. The real is the world’s worst-performing currency in 2020.

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All of this is making much-needed reforms – including a reduction in Brazil’s huge budget deficit – less likely. A $233 billion emergency support package canceled out all of the projected savings over the next decade from last year’s pension reforms. Public debt is projected to reach 90% of GDP this year. Can Paulo Guedes – Brazil’s fiscally prudent finance minister who wanted to privatize a slew of state-owned companies this year – remain in government if his reform plans are thwarted by big state spending?

Bolsonaro’s promise to address corruption also remains unfulfilled. On the contrary, in April, Bolsonaro fired the federal police chief in Rio de Janeiro. The move – an apparent effort to impede investigations involving Bolsonaro’s family members – drove justice minister Sergio Moro, who oversaw Brazil’s largest anti-corruption probe, to resign.

Many of Bolsonaro’s political opponents now want him impeached. Yet Bolsonaro may well make it to the end of his term in 2022. Impeachment would require support from both the Supreme Court and two-thirds of the lower house of Congress. And, so far, the Senate votes aren’t there. Bolsonaro’s approval rating, at 33%, might not seem impressive, but his base remains largely loyal. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 only after her approval ratings had dipped below 10%.

It helps that the opposition is divided. While Bolsonaro’s failures fuel support for opposition parties and candidates, his impeachment could open the way for an even worse fate. Brazilians remain deeply disillusioned over the corruption uncovered during 13 years of Workers’ Party (PT) rule. Many voters who supported Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party in 2018 will vote for Bolsonaro again if PT is the only alternative.

Nonetheless, the opposition may have a better chance to beat a weakened Bolsonaro than does Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired Army general who enjoys higher approval ratings than Bolsonaro. Many analysts worry that a President Mourão would do even more damage than Bolsonaro to Brazil’s democratic institutions.

Already, there is reason to fear that the current crisis is legitimizing the military’s growing participation in government and the economy. Active and former military officials currently hold nine cabinet positions and countless subcabinet offices. The military could, some warn, even intervene to bolster Bolsonaro’s presidency – or to end it.

Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, seems confident that any military intervention would be in his favor. In April, he even attended anti-lockdown protests by his right-wing supporters, who called for a military takeover of government on his behalf. He recently declared that the military would not heed an “absurd or political judgment,” such as an impeachment bid.

For now, the military appears torn between steering the Bolsonaro administration and keeping its distance. It is worth noting that, while military officials occupy 21 key positions in the Ministry of Health, until recently, a civilian filled the public-facing top post. While the nuances of Bolsonaro’s relationship with the military remain unclear – the current acting health minister is military – the dynamic is testier than it may seem.

Even if Bolsonaro remains in office until 2022, his reform agenda will suffer considerably. Yet again, Brazil has lost a crucial opportunity to achieve faster growth, higher prosperity, and greater international influence.

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