Bolsonaro's break

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By SERGIO E. FERRAZ*

The most likely scenario to anticipate, between the end of 2020 and the first months of next year, promises much more difficulties than facilities for the Bolsonaro presidency

Bolsonaro's break approaches 45 days. Since June 18, the day Fabrício Queiroz was arrested, relative silence has settled in Planalto and Alvorada. Will last? Is it a stop that announces a strategic shift? Does it signal an abandonment of authoritarian pretensions and a shift towards a normal conservative government, exercised within the rule of law? Or is it a tactical device, which, after fulfilling its role, will soon leave the scene so that the style of confrontation, insults and attacks on democratic institutions resumes its course?

To understand the pause and its destination, let's look at its origin. What preceded it was a defeat. The most serious suffered so far by the government. Bolsonaro attempted the coup. And he lost. It lost, curiously, due to a combination of circumstances symptomatic of the delicate state of health of Brazilian democracy: on the one hand, with society in “quarantine” and congress operating remotely, it was effectively contained by the judiciary and, in particular, by the STF, who were not intimidated by giving way to inquiries – cracking, “fake news”, organization of coup acts, interference in the Federal Police – which tightened the siege on the president, his family and the digital militia; on the other hand, it retreated when the Armed Forces' refusal to back its willingness to transgress institutional limits became clear.

It didn't seem like a good idea to the commanders of the corporations to live under the dictatorship of a family suspected of corruption and links to the underworld of the militias and whose members show daily evidence of emotional imbalance, irascibility and paranoia. It is the tutelary power shown by the military that complicates the optimistic, but naive, reading that the institutions “got it done”. Would the mood of the barracks have changed and qualified the candidate for strongman better? In fact, the out-of-order functioning of the institutional game is also shown by the instruments to which the judiciary had to appeal: it was the “fake news” inquiry – born in a bizarre way, legally, to say the least – that proved to be more effective in containing the coup escalation.

That the plenary of the STF had to legalize it – in the name of an absolutely necessary political realism – shows that we are somewhere far beyond (or below) the rule of law. And not today, as the Twitter followers of General Villas Boas know and those who followed the peculiar way in which Minister Cármen Lúcia dealt with certain agendas when she presided over that same Supreme Court in 2018, to linger on two well-known examples that greatly contributed for the present state of affairs.

Bolsonaro showed what came long before the pandemic. It was a matter of weeks or a couple of months, after he took office, for it to be clear that we were not facing a conventional right-wing government. Nor someone willing to govern and be guided by the 1988 Constitution – in fact, the target of all presidential dismantling efforts.

The “domestication” thesis soon went up in smoke: Sérgio Moro and Santos Cruz are a portrait on the wall, and it didn't even hurt too much. Guedes, without delivering results, without capacity for formulation or political articulation, is a shadow of what he once was, although still stubbornly supported by the business-financial coalition that, since the “Bridge to the Future”, has imposed its agenda on the country. The military, if they planned to use the former captain, found themselves instrumentalized by someone who, according to Mourão, would not have had time to make an “intellectual” career in the army. It went unnoticed by the deputy that in the more than 30 years of politics Bolsonaro learned enough at another school to know how to use the corporation as a shield, tying it to its destiny: it was not by chance that for Health in the middle of the pandemic he placed a general, nor by distraction that he delegated the Amazon to Mourão himself.

The gains obtained (generous budget, positions, salary increase and protection in the pension reform) and the desired return to politics have and will have a cost for the Armed Forces. Bolsonaro, acting to keep corporations around him and as the backbone of a government that until recently dismissed and demonized parties, contributes to elevating him to the maximum. If the High Command was bothered by Gilmar Mendes' warning, beyond the word genocide, it was because they knew it was valid.

What we saw, therefore, before the ongoing forced pause was that the authoritarianism 1.0 of Bolsonaro's first year in power turned, between February and June of that year, into an escalation towards a rupture that would make the president much greater than the other powers . And the radicalization was not the result of stupidity, madness or mistake: it was the pure result of a calculation.

Here I endorse Marcos Nobre's hypothesis. If he agreed to be the president of all Brazilians and coordinated the fight against Covid19, Bolsonaro would be abandoning the anti-establishment line and adhering to the “system”, everything he could not do if he wanted to remain faithful to his extremely revolutionary project. -right. Informed since February by the GSI of the prediction of 100 deaths, Bolsonaro did not hesitate: he would pay the price, or, more precisely, he would make these human lives the cost of his loyalty to the authoritarian project. In addition, he realized that he had to accelerate, as he knew that the health catastrophe and the resulting economic recession had the potential to destroy a president's term.

But they wouldn't have it if the mandate had already metamorphosed into that of a dictator. It didn't work out. And we return to the question: where will this pause, forced by the action of the STF and the refusal of the military to embark on the adventure, take us? .

For a scenario of “domestication” to assert itself, it would be necessary for Bolsonaro and the extremist group that surrounds him to give up the central purpose of the mandate, the derogation of the democratic order of 88. credible that this happens, except as a temporary tactical retreat or, if the change is permanent, as a result of exceptional circumstances that impel them to such behavior.

To give objectivity to the point, the indicators of such a transition towards “normalization” would be a distribution of ministries proportional to the size of the benches aligned to the government in the legislature, programmatic concessions and adjustment of government policies, reflecting the new composition. None of that happened. Chancellor Araújo and the Minister of the Environment are there, despite growing international pressure, from governments and investment funds, now reinforced by a large part of the local business community; the post of Damares and the office of hatred, the latter in the heart of the Planalto Palace, remain untouched.

And all the policies of dismantling the structures of the State remain unchanged, in the rematch against 88. The approximation with a part of the “Centrão” reflects the need to protect itself against impeachment attempts and involved only the assignment of delimited spaces in the administrative machine. The horizon of the parties that adhered to the government is short and seems to aim at the advantages for the municipal elections of the funds and positions made available. The agreement is punctual, provisional and of uncertain sustainability.

If the more and less recent past of the government, and even its present, are reasons to look skeptically at the perspectives that the Bolsonaro administration will normalize, it is worth looking at the challenges that lie ahead and imagining the likely reactions of the Bolsonaro presidency. . Will the future be more persuasive than the past to inject moderation into the current presidency?

First, we have a runaway pandemic, with loss of life comparable only to the US, and its devastating effects on the economy. In the current circumstances, society is under the temporary anesthesia of emergency economic measures, which has been reflected in the resilience of presidential approval ratings, which have retreated, but still resist at a floor between 25 and 30% of the electorate.

It is necessary to ask what will happen when the government has to decide on its post-pandemic economic policy. Due to ideological bias, due to the allegedly small fiscal space and obvious gaps in the formulation capacity, added to market pressures, it is unlikely that more vigorous public policies will be chosen – that would combine public and private investment in mutual synergy, restructure the cap expenditures and provide a credible narrative for the medium-term evolution of the public debt – vital to put economic activity back on track from 2021. If that is the way to go – a return to austerity, albeit tempered by new social programs, but of much more modest values ​​than the present emergency income -, the recession, mixed with the prolonged health disaster, could punish the country much more severely, falling on an even more deteriorated context, in terms of income, employment and consistency of the economic fabric, than we had at the beginning of the year. And what we had then was bad enough, as a result of the inability to recover after the economic downturn in the 2015-2016 biennium. The absence of private (consumption and investment) or external (net exports) drivers to pull the economy makes this prognosis highly likely.

The suspicion that the worst is yet to come increases among the most attentive analysts. And there is a politically sensitive aggravating factor: the effects of a return to austerity should be stronger in the poorest regions, where the segment of the population that recently joined Bolsonaro is concentrated, partially offsetting the loss of support in the middle classes. In the Northeast, for example, the suspension of emergency aid combined with the end of federal aid to States and Municipalities could trigger a large loss of income and potential collapse of part of public services.

A new lower floor of government approval can be the result of the described course. A picture of health and economic disorder of this magnitude makes it unlikely that an understanding will crystallize in public opinion that would relieve Bolsonaro of his responsibilities. It is not known whether these effects will be clear enough to impact municipal elections, but, at least in some of the capitals and large cities, it is not possible to rule out a “nationalization” of the election, with disputes converging on a judgment of the performance of the government. government in the pandemic.

The continuation of inquiries and judicial investigations into Bolsonaro, his family and the network of digital supporters are the other decisive vector, with important developments already in the month of August. The definitions, in the STF and/or STJ, on the forum where Flávio Bolsonaro's investigation will take place and on the maintenance of Fabrício Queiroz's house arrest, with predictably unfavorable results for the interests of the clan, in the light of the current jurisprudence of the superior courts, have the potential to rapidly raise the temperature of political conflict.

The same goes for the other investigations that are processed in the Supreme Court. Faced with the existential threats launched against the STF in the first half of the year, the lack of credibility of the president's promises of peace, as well as the need for coherence in decisions and reinforcement of the collegiate, in order to preserve the reputation of the Court, it is not see incentives for out-of-the-curve judicial decisions, even though this possibility cannot be completely ruled out, as demonstrated by the busy shifts in the Noronha and Toffoli recesses. .

In the external scenario, the US presidential election will take place in November. Maintaining the current trend, Bolsonaro could lose his biggest support in the international arena, with the defeat of Trump, today between 8 and 10 points behind his Democratic opponent.

The clearest political result of the different dimensions of the situation mentioned will be outlined only with the mitigation of the pandemic and the reopening of the country, which will bring Congress to its normal functioning, will free up fuller negotiation between politicians and will give rise to the possibility of demonstrations. popular. After all, the most likely scenario to anticipate, between the end of 2020 and the first months of next year, promises much more difficulties than facilities for the Bolsonaro presidency.

Under normal circumstances, in which governments place their survival at the top of their priorities, “normalization” would be the most prudent bet regarding the behavior to be expected. Fully fulfilling the mandate would become a sufficient reward, even at the expense of the most intense preferences. The current pause would be succeeded by a right-wing government willing to stick to constitutional limits. It happens that, for known reasons, some discussed above, we are not facing a government like others.

We are facing a government that sees itself as a revolutionary movement and that yearns for a reactionary reconstruction of the country, capable of retroacting the historical time machine to long before 1985 or 1988 – perhaps to some moment before October 1977, as sociologist Jorge Alexandre Neves pointed out, when the basements and the hard line lost their arm with the authoritarian regime's distension project.

We are, therefore, facing a president whose basic strategy is not to exercise his attributions to generate chaos and put the entire system in permanent collapse. From a head of state and government who until recently lived in a permanent campaign, without this implying a paradox, since the objective – to implement authoritarianism – has not yet been achieved.

As such, the resulting policy scenario entails serious uncertainty. On the one hand, the political circumstances of deepening an unprecedented multidimensional crisis, added to the support of the judicial siege of the president, would recommend a bet on normalization, in the name of survival. On the other hand, this type of attitude clashes with the history and DNA of a government, and especially of the president and the radical group that surrounds and influences him, which understands that its mission is to liquidate the regime inaugurated in 1988.

All things considered, it is most likely that, should the judicial siege of the president and his people be loosened, the mission will prevail – because that is what gives the government its meaning from the subjective perspective of those who command it – and the intervals of “truce” or pauses will never be more than tactical devices. The absence so far of support for ruptures by the Armed Forces will not be understood by Bolsonaro as a definitive position of the troops. And the opacity of these corporations, as well as the prevailing worldview there, does not allow us to rule out that they end up in some way allying with the presidential effort not only to corrode, but to effectively produce change in the political regime.

What is certain is that the co-option effort will continue. As will the articulations with the devices of the State Military Police – which already showed what they are capable of in the rebellion in Ceará, last February -, the other likely ballast of a new presidential coup adventure. Relations with the other powers and with the federation will not become cooperative, given the imperative to sustain the dynamics of institutional collapse, a source of legitimacy for the “anti-system” discourse. Against the background of health and economic devastation, this type of presidential strategy may have the potential to generate the social turmoil long awaited by Bolsonarism, an appropriate circumstance for further advances over the institutional limits still in place.

Bolsonaro can be compelled to respect institutions, never persuaded. He blinked as the noose tightened and he found himself without armed support to turn the tables. On the part of those who opposed the authoritarian escalation interrupted in June, the lesson remains that the way to stop extremism in the Planalto does not pass through pacts or affection, but through the application of the law without concession.

From the point of view of the radical nucleus of the government, of which the president and his family are part, the pause is the instrument for working on changing the current scenario, so that the revolutionary project of the extreme right resumes its march. The democratic order of 1988 and Bolsonarism are, in the medium term, simply incompatible. Ignoring this incompatibility is, of the many denialisms in vogue, perhaps the most dangerous.

*Sérgio E. Ferraz He holds a PhD in Political Science from USP.

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