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Brazil’s political crisis is escalating at neck-breaking pace amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership was already being questioned by governors, cabinet members, its own military and a growing portion of citizens, including a share of his former voters. The last and most significant hit was the resignation of Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, a central figure in Brazilian politics, who blamed the President for wanting to interfere with the Federal Police in order to obtain privileged information from secret investigations.
With growing allegations against his government and a rising toll of coronavirus deaths following Bolsonaro’s refusal to order a lockdown, the rumors of an impeachment procedure against the President are only becoming louder. The day after Moro left, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso made an open call for Bolsonaro to leave. “Resign before being resigned”, Cardoso said in his Twitter feed.
A shrinking coalition
The departure of Moro, one of the most popular politicians in Brazil due to his performance as a judge during the Lava Jato corruption scandal, came only a week after Bolsonaro replaced his Health Minister following a tug of war on how to respond to the pandemic.
Outgoing minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta wanted to establish social distancing measures, supporting governors’ decisions to shut down schools and businesses. But his approach clashed with Bolsonaro’s controversial stance on the pandemic, whose dangers he has minimized when compared to those of an economic slowdown.
Mandetta’s position was closer to that of governors from important provinces including Bahia, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and São Paulo. The noise of banging pots and pans in regions were Bolsonaro comfortably won the presidential runoff suggested that many citizens who voted for him have also lost faith in the country’s leader.
With his list of allies getting thinner by the day, Bolsonaro has moved closer to his sons, to far-right adviser Olavo de Carvalho, and to his base of ardent supporters, who have taken it to the streets in rallies and anti-lockdown protests.
Still in the cabinet is Economic Minister Paulo Guedes, the only big political figure left after Moro’s departure. Guedes had a crucial role to build up Bolsonaro’s credibility among the Brazilian establishment, given his pro-market economic credentials. But with economic tension also rising in Brazil, as unemployment grows while the real and the stock market plunge, the executive has also been seen as veering away from Guedes’ influence and looking at increased government intervention as an alternative during the crisis.
Military power games
Experts agree that the military have a decisive role in the institutional outcome of the crisis.
“The military has arbitration power in this situation. It has half the cabinet under its influence and it has aimed at being a moderating force for the President. By forcing the exit of his Health and Justice Ministers, Bolsonaro is challenging the military. As for impeachment, if the military does not back it, it will not end up taking place”, political consultant Rosendo Fraga told The Essential.
For Andrés Malamud, political scientist and researcher at the University of Lisbon, presidential stability now depends on Guedes and the military. “If Guedes leaves, Bolsonaro’s dependency on the military will become absolute. What they decide will be equally relevant to what Congress says with regards to the impeachment when its doors are re-opened”.
If Bolsonaro is forced out, Vice-President Hamilton Mourão, also a military man, would be waiting in the wings.
According to local media, the last showdown between Moro and the President was linked to Bolsonaro’s decision to remove Federal Police Chief Maurício Valeixo, a man of Moro’s trust. Reports say Bolsonaro told Moro last Thursday about the decision, with Moro responding by threatening to quit.
On Friday morning, the dismissal of Chief Valeixo was made official, and Sergio Moro announced his resignation in a press conference hours later. “The change at the head of the Federal Police without a genuine reason is political interference that harms my credibility as well as that of the government”, he said.
The outgoing Justice Minister went on to accuse the president of political meddling in the Federal Police, claiming that Bolsonaro “wanted a Federal Police Chief he could call, that could give him reports on current investigations”. Those accusations could lead to obstruction of justice charges, as Federal Police probes (some of which could hit close to home for the presidency) are confidential.
That very same afternoon, Bolsonaro defended himself on a press conference surrounded by his ministers. He denied having interfered with police work but admitted that he was looking for a chief to interact with.
As the events unfolded, the Brazilian real hit a new record low at 5.74 per dollar that Friday, although it has recovered somewhat since to close at 5.34 yesterday — still far from the 4-per-dollar mark seen at the start of the year. Stocks have also suffered since the beginning of the year, with the EWZ index for Brazilian shares trading around 26 dollars, far below the 48 dollar mark seen in January.
The Car Wash judge
Sergio Moro rose to fame as the judge of the famed Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) corruption investigations that put prominent business owners and politicians in jail, the most high-profile of them being former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As a result, Moro gathered huge support among critics of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) as well as anti-corruption crusaders.
Moro’s figure has been a source of multiple controversies, as his role in investigations has been repeatedly questioned by the PT, as well as activists and journalists, who denounce him for lacking political impartiality. Strategic leaks of phone conversations between then-President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Lula (as both were under fire in the build up to Rousseff’s impeachment) have been said to trace back to Moro. His role in jailing Lula, who at one point led polls in the presidential race that was ultimately won by Bolsonaro, was also seen as a big conflict of interest considering his ultimate destination at Bolsonaro’s Ministry of Justice.
But none of that put any serious dent on the faith of his support base. Moro became a dual legal and political figure, praised for bringing a more modern, clean and scientific vision in the fight against crime with increased use of databases and genetic and ballistic profiles, while also fighting against entrenched power structures that controlled Brazilian politics and business.
Eyes now on Guedes
When Bolsonaro won the election, Moro and Guedes were anointed as “superministers” to add political legitimacy to his government, trying to counterbalance the unpredictability created by his rising figure. With Moro already out, the focus now moved onto Brazil’s Economy Minister.
Guedes appearance at the aforementioned Bolsonaro press conference certainly did not do a lot to quiet down the rumors, as the minister stood out as the only one wearing a mask (while also not wearing any shoes). That image came amid reports that Guedes was losing some of his voice in the government’s decision making.
Bolsonaro’s approach at the beginning of the pandemic had been more in line with Guedes, betting on postponing tax payments, providing credit liquidity, making labor contracts more flexible and guaranteeing working capital for entrepreneurs. But that trend had been changing lately, with Bolsonaro favoring more Keynesian policies such as the military’s “Pro-Brazil” plan, focused on state spending through infrastructure projects to restore economic growth.
To clear the rumors about the potential departure of Brazil’s last staning “superminister”, Bolsonaro appeared with Guedes yesterday by the door of the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. “The man who makes economic decision is only one. His name is Paulo Guedes”, the President said, adding that all countries are spending more due to the crisis and that Brazil will follow that path for the moment.
Still, the blows against Bolsonaro have kept on coming, the latest being the court suspension of his nominee Alexandre Ramagem, a friend of the presidential family, as the new Federal Police chief yesterday. With more than 5,000 COVID-19 deaths confirmed and days of more than 400 deaths now becoming the norm, pressure against the president’s weakening coalition should be expected to continue.