Credit: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images
Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in esglobal, a Madrid-based think tank. Esther Solano es socióloga especialista en política brasileña. Ella es Doctora en Ciencias Sociales por la Universidad Complutense de Madrid y profesora de Relaciones Internacionales en la Universidad Federal de São Paulo.
To read the original piece, click here.
According to the latest polls, Bolsonaro’s popularity is greater than when he took office. Dr. Esther Solano’s research on public opinion analyzes three types of bolsonaristas: the faithful constituency, the critics, and the repentant. The question she addresses is: how is it possible that Bolsonaro is at the height of his popularity with over 153,000 COVID-19 deaths (as of Oct. 16, 2020)?
The faithful and the repentant
To understand the reason why 57.8 million Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro, let’s divide his voters in two categories: the radical, 10 to 15 percent of his base, and the moderate votes, the majority of his constituents. The first are predominantly rich white men from southern and southeastern Brazil. They are mostly between 25 and 45 years old and connect emotionally and psychologically with Bolsonaro political values including sharing a chauvinist vision of a violent, racist, and homophobic world. But, why do most moderate voters continue to trust such a president?
In comparison to other candidates, Bolsonaro was a political outsider, an honest politician that genuinely wanted to fight corruption. One of the most problematic legacies of the Operation Lava Jato is the intense distrust of politicians that has been deeply impressed, especially into the Brazilian middle class, which largely views former Judge Sergio Moro as an anti-corruption hero. A big part of the bolsonarista public continues to support Bolsonaro for the same reason—they see him as honest and genuine. Others may not trust him specifically, but see no better political alternative in a political system that has proved inherently corrupt.
In addition to this honesty, the most loyal voters argue repeatedly that: first, when compared to the previous 14 years under the Workers’ Party, Bolsonaro has not had time to govern; second, the prior administrations left the country politically, economically, and socially destroyed, thus rebuilding it is no easy task; third, when Brazil started to get back on its feet, the pandemic came; fourth, Bolsonaro is doing everything he can to improve the situation, but the persecution of the press, the opposition politicians, and the Supreme Tribunal—one of the biggest enemies of the president—make it impossible to govern effectively.
Despite his continued support, Bolsonaro has lost many voters among the lavajatista middle and upper class who were shaken by the resignation of Minister of Justice and Public Security Sergio Moro on April 24, 2020, after accusing Bolsonaro of political interference after the president appointed a new director of the Federal Police in order to protect his sons from ongoing investigations. In fact, his family has proved to be one of Bolsonaro’s biggest problems. His sons—who hold offices—are subjects of several investigations. Flávio Bolsonaro, Senator for Rio de Janeiro, was accused of illegally transferring funds mounting to R$1.2 million. Rio de Janeiro Councilman Carlos Bolsonaro was accused of “ghost” nominations in his cabinet and coordinating a fake news campaign through illegal messages during the elections. This latest investigation into electoral fake news is the one that worries Brasilia the most since the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has opened a process to challenge the Bolsonaro-Mourão candidacy.
In addition to Moro’s resignation, and their negative view of Bolsonaro’s sons, this group of voters—now disappointed or repentant—argue that Bolsonaro does not comply with the decorum demanded by his position, claiming that he is excessively violent, authoritarian, and histrionic in his ways of governing, thus causing instability; and that his management of the pandemic is irresponsible and inhumane.
At the same time, on May 18, 2020, Fabricio Queiroz, former advisor to Flavio Bolsonaro was arrested after spending a year in hiding in a house owned by the lawyer of the Bolsonaro family. Querioz is suspected of being Flavio Bolsonaro’s front man. According to Datafolha, 64 percent of Brazilians believe that Bolsonaro knew of Queiroz’s whereabouts all along.
In recent weeks, it seems that the administration received the message from the disenchanted groups among their base and changed their strategy. Bolsonaro’s sons have largely disappeared from the public sphere and the president himself has appeared “domesticated” compared to his early days. As a result of this strategic behavioral shift, the president’s popularity has resurfaced. Regarding the COVID-19 deaths and the criticism of his management of the pandemic, he also has a clear strategy. The blame for these numbers and the looming economic crisis is the fault of state governors and mayors. They did not follow his recommendations that people go to work, instead decreeing confinements that only some complied with and, in this way, they failed to stop the pandemic and aggravated the economic crisis. It seems that this recent tactic may also be starting to work.
Bolsonaro’s popularity is also beginning to increase among the lower socioeconomic classes, mainly because of the emergency aid of R$600 per month that they are receiving during the pandemic, which is essential for the survival of millions of Brazilians. The president is also beginning to invest politically in northeastern Brazil, the most impoverished region and an electoral stronghold of the Workers’ Party. He knows that if he can win over the population with economic aid, the road to re-election will be much easier. The data is impressive; 65.3 million Brazilians are receiving aid, and a third of them are in the Northeast. Unfortunately, the aid will not last forever. The Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes is already insisting that it is incompatible with his policies of budgetary and fiscal adjustment. Furthermore, Minister Guedes is essential for maintaining the support of the business community as well as national and international capital. Will Guedes and Bolsonaro be able to reach an agreement to maintain sufficient economic aid (although likely less than R$600) to guarantee the support of the poorest, while continuing to push for privatization reforms to keep businesses satisfied?
The possibility of an impeachment, which seemed at least partly plausible in previous months, is much diminished. Bolsonaro has wide support among the Armed Forces with the most militarized government in Brazilian history comprising 11 military ministers and almost 3,000 government positions occupied by military personnel. The Armed Forces have benefited greatly from their presence in the government with a new pension reform and an increase in the military budget during a time of cuts in many other areas. Bolsonaro is also negotiating with the powerful president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, who has in his possession no less than 47 different impeachment orders and controls a group called “Centrão”, which brings together approximately 200 deputies—513 in total—who have no specific ideological identity and are, therefore, sold to the highest bidder. The group has been accused of corrupt practices, but has the power to balance the country’s governance.
If the new bolsonarista strategy, based on the moderation of the president with the help of R$600 monthly pandemic payments and the blame of mayors and governors for the fallout continues to work, Bolsonaro will remain a viable candidate for the next presidential elections in 2022. He would not only maintain the support of loyalists, but also among a good number of currently critical supporters, a group that seems to be generally moving back in his direction again. Sentiments against the Workers’ Party are still quite strong among the general population, but there has also been no strong alternative candidate that could bring together the right-wing and the center-right. Various names are being considered such as João Doria, governor of São Paulo, Sergio Moro, and Luciano Huck, a well-known television presenter, but nothing is settled.
Will Bolsonaro’s popularity continue to rise? Will the administration be able to maintain its new strategy? The next few months will tell.