Bolsonaro's victory?

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By BERNARDO RICUPERO*

The president's current popularity is the result of a combination of many factors. It is important to know whether this level of approval can be maintained

On August 08, it was announced that Brazil had reached the astonishing figure of 100 deaths from the new coronavirus. The number of deaths exceeds those caused in 2019 by traffic accidents and murders and, more than a hundred years ago, by the Paraguayan War. It makes the country the second in the number of deaths caused by the pandemic, surpassed only by the USA.

On August 12, Datafolha indicated that President Jair Bolsonaro reached his approval record, with 37% of respondents considering his administration as excellent or good. This is, however, the same ruler who minimized the severity of covid-19 and sabotaged social distancing, a measure that has proven to be the most effective to combat its spread.

How, then, to explain that in the midst of one of the greatest social tragedies in Brazilian history, your president reaps unprecedented levels of popularity? The explanation may favor conjuncture factors and maintain that Bolsonaro's tactic throughout the pandemic was successful. That is, he would have managed to extricate himself from responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus, in addition to attacking a measure, the quarantine, which has become increasingly unpopular. Such rejection would be especially strong among those most affected by social distancing, self-employed and small business owners, sectors sensitive to Bolsonarist discourse in advance.

The explanation may also favor structural factors and argue, in a nutshell, that life is not of great value in Brazil. Proof of this is the impressive number of violent deaths that, to some extent, were, over time, incorporated into our daily lives, possibly considered as “a thing of life”. As a result of this predisposition, deaths from covid-19 would eventually be naturalized, little difference making Bolsonaro the reaper of lives that he is. It is not surprising that a feeling like this appears in a society formed by slavery and that never valued its people.

The explanation may, finally, favor one or another measure, emergency assistance to the most vulnerable population being highlighted among them. A sign of the impact of this initiative is that among those who receive the aid, around 40% of the population, the president's approval reaches 42% and his disapproval in the poorest region of the country, the Northeast, has dropped, in the fifty days since the last Datafolha poll, from 52% to 35%. There is a certain irony that one of the main effects of the emergency aid is to leverage Bolsonaro's popularity, since, as is widely known, the government originally defended a contribution of R$ 200,00, the value having reached R$ 600,00 .XNUMX only due to the insistence of Congress.

In fact, Bolsonaro's current popularity is not the result of any of these factors alone, but a combination of them. The more relevant question is whether this level of approval can be maintained.

In order to seek an answer to this question, it is also necessary to take into account conjunctural and structural factors. The more immediate problem is the new situation created by the coronavirus and the government's botched response to it. The most permanent issue to consider is the behavior of the coalition that elected and supported Bolsonaro. It is also a question here of imagining how these dimensions are articulated.

It is possible, in particular, that the new situation created by the pandemic will lead to an electoral realignment of Bolsonarism. The obvious analogy is with the post-mensalão Lulism analyzed by the political scientist André Singer. In this case, the separation of the PT candidate from the middle class, which had begun in the 2002 election, would have been potentiated by the scandal. On the other hand, Lula increased his support, in the 2006 election, among the poorest and in the Northeast region.

Bolsonaro’s handling or lack of handling of the pandemic contributed to the government’s attrition with the middle class. Combined with the departure of the popular Sérgio Moro from the Ministry of Justice, it consolidated the removal of this sector from Bolsonarism. On the other hand, the emergency aid created possibilities for Bolsonaro in segments of the electorate in which the retired captain had difficulty penetrating, in particular, the former Lula base, identified with the poorest and the Northeast.

In both cases, Lula and Bolsonaro had the support of the Centrão Parliament, an informal alliance of parties always willing to support the government. The difference is that Mensalão emerged from Centrão, while the coronavirus led to an approximation with Centrão. More and more importantly, the realignment of Lulism took place in conditions in which the economy was growing due to the boom in commodities, already in 2006 the GDP having grown 4%. In contrast, the calculations are that 2020 GDP should fall by at least 5%.

In any case, the coronavirus provoked a rearrangement in the coalition that supports Bolsonaro. If the retired captain was elected supported by an extreme right-wing nucleus, which was joined by the “lavajista” middle class, the financial bourgeoisie and the agribusiness identified with the liberal discourse, in addition to Pentecostal and military popular sectors resentful of the New Republic, the configuration of the alliance has changed since March. In short, the “lavajista” middle class distanced itself from the government, which, on the other hand, now has support among popular sectors contemplated with emergency aid and in the Centrão.

The question now for Bolsonaro is how to maintain the support of his new base without alienating his former allies.

In the case of the poorest, the main problem is the end of emergency aid. Consequently, it will be necessary to create compensation in the form of some minimum income program. The design that such a program assumes may, however, create tensions within the Bolsonarist coalition. The economic team insists that the already announced Renda Brasil is the result of the unification of existing social programs, therefore not resulting in pressure on a Budget with already exacerbated expenses due to the fight against the pandemic.

In the case of Centrão, Bolsonaro needs to change the speech that elected him president. In short, instead of attacking the “system”, he would have to ally himself with the “system”. The new speech has been rehearsed since mid-June, especially after the arrest of the “squire” Fabrício Queiroz, when the attacks on the Federal Supreme Court (STF) and Congress were softened. At the same time, the president's most recent allies may disturb the hard core of Bolsonarism. Dissatisfaction tends to appear mainly if it is perceived that the approach of the “Mito” as Centrão is more than a tactical move.

In addition to the speech, the alliance with Centrão should favor a new practice. It should translate, in particular, into more government works and spending. That there is support for the new orientation within the government was clear at the notorious ministerial meeting on April 22, in which the Chief Minister of the Civil House, General Braga Netto, when announcing the so-called Pro-Brasil Plan, clashed with the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes.

Combined with the search for support among the popular sectors, this orientation creates constraints for the liberal group. Not by chance, Guedes, faced with the return of several assistants to the private sector, in a mixture of warning and blackmail, spoke of the government's "disbandment" and even hinted at the possibility of an impeachment. It is therefore necessary to wait to see how such a move will have repercussions for the financial bourgeoisie and the agribusiness.

It doesn't take great foresight, however, to realize that Bolsonaro's current levels of popularity are far from safe. On the other hand, his defeat will depend mainly on how the opposition will act.

*Bernardo Ricupero is a professor of political science at USP. Author, among other books, of Seven lessons on interpreting Brazil (Avenue).

 

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