Brazilian faith in Bolsonaro presidency declining fast

Examining five key questions as the pressure grows on Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, leaving the outcome of the 2022 elections harder to forecast.

3 minute READ

Do the congressional investigations of the handling of the COVID-19 crisis pose a genuine threat to Bolsonaro?

The two potential threats that the investigations could bring would be impeachment and/or a large decline in his popularity, leading to defeat in the 2022 presidential elections. As documented by polls, an overwhelming majority of Brazilians support the Congressional investigations and the inquiry has already affected Bolsonaro’s popularity, leading to him facing some of the worst approval ratings since he became president. However, it is hard to disassociate this from the impact of his catastrophic handling of the pandemic as Brazil recently surpassed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, the second highest death toll for a country globally.

However Brazilian public opinion is volatile so a normalization of access to vaccinations – already improving – and a potential economic recovery in 2022 could boost his popularity, particularly if accompanied by a spurt in social spending which has previously helped him muster support among poorer voters. Perceptions of the pandemic will also influence the vote and, as of mid-July, public opinion already seemed to be shifting from the perception that the pandemic is out of control to that of the pandemic being ‘partially’ under control.

And an important factor is Brazilians’ trust in Congress is extremely low, with a 2018 survey showing only three per cent saying they trusted Congress ‘a lot’. A manipulation of this distrust could lead to decreasing the legitimacy of the investigations, minimizing the impact on public opinion.

Is there a chance he will not complete his mandate?

Although there are more than 100 impeachment requests pending against Bolsonaro, congressional leadership has so far suggested the political conditions for his impeachment are not yet present. However, a Datafolha poll in early July shows that, for the first time, a majority (54 per cent) of respondents favour the impeachment of the president so, should that majority grow, Bolsonaro could be perceived by legislators as weakened and more likely to be defeated than an alternative candidate for the centre-right or right.

The fragmented Congress has a powerful and opportunistic ‘big centre’ block which has proved a challenge for most Brazilian presidents in recent history

Bolsonaro’s current supporters in Congress could then shift their support to another presidential candidate and reduce resistance to his impeachment. But even Bolsonaro’s main rivals, such as Lula, have not yet fought for his impeachment, assessing that a weakened Bolsonaro is easier to defeat than a new emerging figure who could potentially draw the support of Bolsonaro’s electoral base.

For the moment Bolsonaro has enough support from Congress to avoid impeachment, but much depends on the support he receives from the powerful political centrist block of the House, the Centrao, as well as his popularity going forward and viability as a successful candidate in the 2022 elections.

Would his position likely be weakened or strengthened given his disregard for democratic values anyway?

Although one part of Bolsonaro’s constituency does share his disregard for democratic values, either through the narratives of extreme social conservativism or the rejection of the established democratic institutions as corrupt, this is not true of all his voters.

Many supported Bolsonaro hoping for a more liberal and orthodox economic agenda, but support from this and other parts of his base appears to already be eroding due to corruption allegations linked to vaccine procurement negotiations as well as, separately, the President’s past involvement in a scheme to misappropriate part of his workforce’s wages. 

This is also true of evangelicals, a key Bolsonaro constituency, with a June 2021 opinion poll by IPEC indicating that, were an election to take place today, only 32 per cent of the evangelical vote would go to Bolsonaro. This would amount to roughly half the support that the President received from evangelicals in the 2018 elections, and which was fundamental in bringing him to power.

Bolsonaro’s confrontational approach to governance and defiance of institutional rules of the game, which the investigations are highlighting, also alienates potential allies within the conservative-leaning Congress. The investigations add to the scrutiny of the Bolsonaro government, already under pressure over its response to the pandemic, and so are likely to further weaken support. They also highlight that Bolsonaro, a candidate who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, may have been aware of corruption linked to vaccine contracts.

Bolsonaro may not lose his loyal core base because of the congressional inquiries, but he will likely emerge weakened as less devoted parts of his base are exposed to highly televised information about the erratic and potentially illegal handling of pandemic-related policy.

If Lula runs, is it now even more likely he will be successful in being elected?

Given the extraordinary circumstances and state of divisions in Brazilian society, the outcome of the elections is hard to forecast. Current polls show if the election was held today, Bolsonaro and Lula would face a run-off with Lula most likely to win. But both Bolsonaro and Lula represent extreme and undesirable choices for an undecided and substantial part of the electorate as they both have loyal bases but also relatively high and consistent levels of disapproval.

Many supported Bolsonaro hoping for a more liberal and orthodox economic agenda, but support from this and other parts of his base appears to already be eroding

With the centre having failed to propose a single and popular alternative candidate, a lot depends on these voters who are likely to be influenced by the state of recovery from COVID-19, the rollout of vaccination, and economic recovery. The unlikely – but not to be excluded – rise of a centre-right or centrist candidate, particularly if Bolsonaro’s ratings continue to plummet, could seriously threaten Lula’s chances. At the same time, the absence of a centrist candidate with viable chances to win, would also leave a large part of the Brazilian electorate in a situation of having to choose between what they view as ‘the lesser of two evils’.

It is true the current revelations about the Bolsonaro government’s handling of the pandemic and potential involvement in corruption scandals, combined with a sense of injustice committed against Lula, have boosted the latter’s popularity so, if the run-off took place today, he would likely win. But 14 months to the election is a long time in political terms.

If Lula is elected, can he build an effective governing bloc in Congress?

Lula is well known for his ability to self-transform and construct himself as a warrior of the left but he can be a moderate centrist when needed, with a more orthodox economic policy combined with a social agenda. As in the past, Lula needs to use pragmatism to bring together a broad-enough coalition to ensure support for his government were he to run and win. That pragmatism is already evident as Lula has acknowledged the need for dialogue with the centre, beyond the centre left.

He has also smartly formulated a narrative of ‘Bolsonaro or democracy’ meaning that democratic forces, including some previously not sympathetic to the PT, could end up supporting him. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, whose party the PSDB was Lula’s main rival for years, has come out clearly in favour of working together with Lula and uniting to make sure a second Bolsonaro government is avoided.

But whether pre-electoral discursive support could translate into a natural governing bloc in Congress is debatable. The fragmented Congress has a powerful and opportunistic ‘big centre’ block which has proved a challenge for most Brazilian presidents in recent history – even Bolsonaro eventually succumbed to ‘pork-barrel politics’ to win its support.