Bolsonaro nears big political win just as calls for impeachment grow

Brazilian president’s allies close in on key roles in Congress as coronavirus criticism mounts

Workers bury someone who died with Covid-19, in the Nossa Senhora Aparecida public cemetery in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, last week. Photograph: Raphael Alves/EPA

Workers bury someone who died with Covid-19, in the Nossa Senhora Aparecida public cemetery in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, last week. Photograph: Raphael Alves/EPA

 

The latest series of blunders in the already heavily criticised pandemic response of Brazilian authorities has led to renewed calls for the removal of the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Several new impeachment motions have been filed in Congress since dozens of Covid-19 patients died earlier this month, asphyxiated in their beds after hospitals ran out of oxygen following unheeded warnings from medical personnel that supplies were running out.

The tragedy in the jungle city of Manaus has coincided with growing public anger at the stuttering start to the country’s rollout of vaccines, following months during which Bolsonaro worked to undermine his own administration’s nationwide vaccination planning.

With more than 220,000 deaths, Brazil already has the world’s second highest number of fatalities from Covid-19 after the United States and is currently in the grip of a punishing new wave of coronavirus, increasingly driven by the recently identified Brazilian variant.

Religious groups

The latest submissions to Congress include ones made by influential sectors of the country’s religious and legal establishments. One filed last week by a coalition of influential Catholic and Protestant religious groups accused the president of committing “crimes of responsibility”, the benchmark for impeachment, charging: “By his actions and omissions during the pandemic, Bolsonaro has failed to do what was required of him as president.”

Several of the motions also take aim at health minister Gen Eduardo Pazuello, one accusing him of ignoring scientific advice and instead “lying to please the leader of a mob of genocidals”.

The minister’s role in the tragedy in Manaus is already under investigation. Even as the city was running out of oxygen, he led a delegation there to promote the drug chloroquine as a treatment against Covid-19, though tests show it has no proven efficacy in fighting the virus.

President Jair Bolsonaro. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images
President Jair Bolsonaro. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images

But despite opinion polls registering a sharp drop in public support, Bolsonaro could be on the verge of scoring one of his biggest wins in office. Even as calls for his impeachment multiply, the president’s team is manoeuvring to propel allies into the presidencies of the Senate and lower house of Congress in in-house elections to be held on Monday.

The key race is for control of the gavel in the lower chamber. Whoever wields it decides if and when impeachment motions are tabled, and Bolsonaro has offered billions of reais in spending to members of Congress for their pet projects in a bid to boost the chances of his candidate Arthur Lira. The frontrunner, he has said the pandemic should not be used as a motive for “sudden democratic interruptions”.

Partnership

Lira’s candidacy is the latest stage in the president’s partnership with the bloc of opportunistic, right-wing parties known as the Big Centre, who traditionally trade support for any president in return for access to lucrative government jobs and lavish pork-barrel spending.

When running for the presidency in 2018, Bolsonaro promised to end this give-and-take bargaining with Congress which he dismissed as “old politics”. But he turned to the group last year for protection during a previous surge in calls for his removal. Their alliance of convenience put the brake on any push towards impeachment as it bought the president a blocking minority in Congress.

President Bolsonaro remains vulnerable to his own propensity for provoking crises

But the Big Centre’s reputation for corruption ended any pretence that Bolsonaro would seek to clean up Brazilian public life. Lira has been convicted of involvement in a scheme that robbed tens of millions of euro from the state assembly of Alagoas when he served there as a state deputy. He denies any wrongdoing and is appealing the conviction.

Rodrigo Maia, the chamber’s outgoing president who is one of Bolsonaro’s main political opponents, has accused him of seeking to use Lira’s candidacy to turn the Congress into an “annex” of the presidential palace. He is backing centrist Baleia Rossi, who has drawn support from across the political spectrum, including from opposition left-wing parties.

Vulnerable

But congressional observers say while a victory for Lira will further reduce the threat of an impeachment push against Bolsonaro, the president remains vulnerable to his own propensity for provoking crises.

“The Big Centre’s pact with Bolsonaro is not eternal,” says Sylvio Costa, director of Congress in Focus, an independent website that monitors the legislature.

“It is not the most probable scenario but if the pandemic worsens, the economy remains terrible and Bolsonaro continues to create crises all the time, distilling hate and incompetence wherever he goes it is not impossible that impeachment comes back onto the agenda. Lira will not sacrifice himself just to maintain Bolsonaro in office.”

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