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Bolsonaro Squeezed between Pandemic, Lula Card and Armed Forces

This article is taken from Intervenção Comunista — the journal of our Brazilian comrades

We wrote in May last year that the ‘tropical Trump’ causes a perfect storm. This first quarter of the year seems to demonstrate this clearly: GDP decline (-4.1%) and increased unemployment (14.2%); an end to emergency aid and a delay in the resumption of a new, much leaner aid plan; a record number of deaths and Covid infections.

With 2.7% of the world’s population, the country accounts for about 12% of Covid-19 deaths. In March alone, Brazil recorded an increase of about 33% in its daily deaths. The pandemic crisis, coupled with historical imbalances, is shaking up the dysfunctional government of Jair Bolsonaro, who has just appointed his fourth health minister in a year.

Increased dependence on the Centrão

The second half of Bolsonaro’s term began — for their politics — with the election of Arthur Lira (Progressive Party-Alagoas) as president of the Chamber of Deputies, and Rodrigo Pacheco (Democrats Minas Gerais) as president of the Senate. They won by relying on the support of the presidency. Analysts and columnists agree that these victories make O Capitão (The Captain) even more dependent on the Centrão (Centre) which, as we wrote, is an aggregate of medium or small party acronyms […] which is the expression of Brazilian continental pluralism: both an expression of imbalance and, paradoxically, instruments of the balance of power in Brasilia.

According to Helena Chagas, a journalist and former head of the Secretariat for Social Communication with President Rousseff, the president opening up the government to the centrão contradicts his campaign proposition. This dynamic does not differ much from other elected governments since 1989, when the first direct elections since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985 were held, because it is characteristic of ‘coalition presidentialism’. The difference lies in the combination of the crises in which the Presidency is immersed, which further hampers its capacity for leadership on this basis. In summary, this victory in parliament does not guarantee the approval of the reformist liberal agenda [Interesse Vacional, April-June 2021].

The contradiction, Chagas continues, would be that the Centrão is not, and has never been, reformist, since it is a grouping of parties interested in the control of tasks and funds allocated by the federal machine for states and municipalities. Therefore, any more restrictive reform or budget proposal on public expenditure will entail paying a price, In order to implement the reforms Bolsonaro would have to do what he does not seem capable of: unify the myriad, contradictory interests in his government, in dialectic with the external constraint, we should add. This dialectic becomes even more complex in a National Congress in which 24 parties, out of a total of 33 legally recognised, are represented.

The great surprise of March

To further complicate the life of the government and to mix up the political scenario, on March 8th the Federal Supreme Court Judge Edson Fachin decided to overturn all the convictions of former President Lula formulated by the 13th Federal Court of Curitiba, and thereby restoring his political rights. The decision, which was later confirmed by the Supreme Court in plenary session, switched on the amber light for the presidency.

On the one hand, Fachin’s decision essentially throws the former president into the clashes and political articulations in order to counterbalance Bolsonaro due to his disastrous management of the health crisis and to make a candidacy up to the challenge in the 2022 election feasible. Thus, as with a product that must be evaluated by its potential consumers before being put the market, launching Lula into the electoral market serves to assess the feasibility of using this card by the fractions of capital.

On the other hand, in the absence of other competitive cards, playing the Lula card can be useful to the plurality of interests of the bourgeois fractions in order to force the centre of the political spectrum […] to reach an agreement — that is, to find a leadership that can embody the need to adapt Brazilian imperialism to the cycle of the new season of state capitalism that is beginning. However, there is no guarantee that there will be the conditions for high public spending, as are happening in the United States and EU. […]

The Lula card for a ‘Biden tactic’?

Commenting on the reactions to Fachin’s decision, Christopher Garman — Executive Director for the Americas of the Eurasia Group, a North American political risk research and consulting firm — stated that the market and analysts have not assessed the strength of the left in Brazil, as there would be no reason for Brazil to diverge from the Latin American standard. The centre-right governments in Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador fell into crisis, favouring those who were in the clearest position of opposition. Times change: The voter now wants income, work and health, and not fight against corruption. The agenda has changed and therefore it is not possible to think that the rejection towards Lula is insurmountable.

In any case, the market reaction is linked more to Bolsonaro’s potential populist reaction to Lula’s return and to the worsening economic crisis than to his electoral threat. Here Garman sees the impact of the external constraint on the support for Bolsonaro: whenever he flirts with fiscal irresponsibility and political interference in Petrobras, the market reacts very badly and the permanence of the economic team ends up in check […], market signals are important.

For the analyst, the scenario could even change with an articulation that would prevent the fragmentation of the centre into multiple nominations, but he says that the centre does not occupy the space of anti-Bolsonarism as Lula is capable of doing. And if his candidacy is consolidated, Garman sees the possibility of reconnecting with the private sector. However, there are still undefined variables, which depend on the economic performance from the second half of the year onwards and on the effects of the epidemic.

A ‘Biden tactic’ could be put in place in Brazil, by the large groups and their main parties, which unified the main currents of the Democratic Party in opposition to Donald Trump. Wellington Dias (Workers’ Party), Governor of Piauí, commented: This is a national salvation project. The logic of electoral competition in Brazil will be similar to that of the USA. Garman adds: The difference is that Bolsonaro has the time that Trump didn’t have. He can recover in a year and a half.

Truce for anti-Bolsonarism

The conservative newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo (March 22nd) welcomes the understanding between the political forces of the centre and the left, even though it came about through political calculations, especially by Lula, who would have made Dias an emissary to governors and politicians of the centre such as those of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party — seeking a common political platform in dealing with the crisis.

The editorial states that, although the movement passes through political calculations, it would be acquiring the awareness that there can be no insurmountable political divergence in the face of the imperative to prevent Bolsonaro’s re-election. And the editorial concludes with an appeal: It will be a relief to no longer have Bolsonaro in the presidential chair, of course, but whoever will sit on it will have to be the holder of a great national agreement.

A similar statement was made by some political scientists in the newspaper Folha (March 24th): On the new chessboard, the Workers’ Party and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party have more points — in common than differences between them, With the emergence of undemocratic extremism […], what was the centre has been violently pushed to the left […] and the left folds back towards the centre; hence, after antilulism, embodied by Bolsonaro, the season of antibolsonarism, or anti-antilulism, which could be embodied by Lula, opens.

This new fact could have three consequences. The first is the potential candidacy of Lula, who within a few days […] occupied the empty space that awaited a figure ‘neither left-wing nor right-wing’; the second consequence is that Lula should give a clear message against the serious ethical deviations in his governments; and the third is that, from the point of view of a pro-Lula articulation, it would be more advantageous to make Bolsonaro bleed until next year, despite the ongoing disaster in the management of the pandemic. Finally, it has been stated that it is a mistake to think that Lula and Bolsonaro [are] symmetrical evils, even if of the opposite sign — it is an optical illusion with harmful effects and [which] must be abandoned as soon as possible.

It remains to be seen how the presidency will react to these movements. Meanwhile, the bill and the pressure increase. With the weakening of the executive, the legislative, through Lira and Pacheco, is starting to express more and more the interests of the large economic and financial groups. These are uncomfortable with the erratic management of the pandemic, with the frictions created in foreign and environmental policy and with the difficulty of proceeding with structural reforms

Parliament: an expression of the large groups

This is confirmed by the changes in the ministries that took place in March, such as the replacement of General Eduardo Pazuello with the cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga at the Ministry of Health. Seeking to force the government to change its negationist stance in the fight against the pandemic, Congress demanded a replacement in exchange for trying to block the establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry into Covid, which in any case could be imminent.

The month ended with replacements at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defence. Chancellor Ernesto Araújo resigned under intense pressure from the Senate. With his anti-globalist foreign policy, he has been accused of creating hostility towards China, interfering with obtaining inputs for vaccine production, harming the interests of the exporting agro-industry sector and of raising issues about 5G. He was replaced by the diplomat Carlos França who, for now, seems to be a sign of rebalancing.

On the same day, General Fernando Azevedo e Silva resigned from the Ministry of Defence, fuelling the climate of political tension. In his resignation letter, he stated that he disagreed with the political use that the presidency tries to make of the Armed Forces, which during his tenure he preserved as state institutions. As a demonstration of the unity in the military command and the three branches of the armed forces, their respective commanders also resigned: this is the first time in history that a president has changed the country’s military leadership in the middle of their term. The new Minister of Defence, Walter Braga Netto, who previously chaired the Civil House (the body responsible for coordinating government action and other ministries), promoted the reshuffle of commands, thus giving a sign of the unity of the Armed Forces.