Thu. Apr 15th, 2021

The prospect of the rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro becoming Brazil’s president was always frightening. This was a man with a history of denigrating women, gay people and minorities, who praised authoritarianism and torture. The nightmare has proved even worse in reality. Not only has he used a dictatorship-era national security law to pursue critics, and overseen a surge in deforestation of the Amazon to a 12-year high, he has allowed coronavirus to rampage unchecked, attacking movement restrictions, masks and vaccines. More than 60,000 Brazilians died in March alone. “Bolsonaro has managed to turn Brazil into a gigantic hellhole,” Colombia’s former president, Ernesto Samper, tweeted recently. The spread of the more contagious P1 variant is imperilling other countries.

With a poll last week showing 59% of voters rejecting him, Mr Bolsonaro appears to be preparing for an unfavourable outcome in next year’s elections. Last week he sacked the defence minister, a retired general and longstanding friend who nevertheless appears to have taken exception to Bolsonaro’s attempts to use the armed forces as a personal political tool. The commanders of the army, navy and air force were also fired – reportedly as they were poised to resign.

The immediate trigger for the sackings was last month’s bombshell return of the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after a judge quashed his criminal convictions – opening the door for him to run again next year. Lula’s excoriating attacks on the president are widely seen as heralding a fresh bid for power from a charismatic politician who remains hugely popular in some quarters.

Is it possible that, inspired by Donald Trump, Mr Bolsonaro contemplates hanging on to power through the use of might? No. It is probable. The armed forces have overridden the people’s will before: Brazil was a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. When the mob stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, his son took exception not to their assault, but their inefficiency: “It was a disorganised movement. Pitiful,” said Eduardo Bolsonaro. “If they had been organised the invaders would have seized the Capitol and made pre-established demands. They would have had enough firepower to ensure that none of them died and to be able to kill all of the police officers inside or the congresspeople they so despise.”

While the departure of the armed forces chiefs may suggest resistance to a coup plot, it also allows the president to install those he judges more compliant; younger officers were always more enthusiastic about Mr Bolsonaro. Opposition politicians are pressing for impeachment, with one warning: “There is an attempt here by the president to arrange a coup – it is under way already.”

There is some cause for hope. Vicious attacks by the president and his cronies have failed to curb a vibrant media environment, cow the courts or silence critics in civil society. His disastrous handling of Covid-19 appears to be prompting second thoughts among the economic elite that previously embraced him. Some parts of the military apparently share that unease. The possibility of Lula’s return is enough to concentrate rightwing minds on finding an alternative, less extremist candidate than Mr Bolsonaro. It might be galling to see those who assisted his rise position themselves as the guardians of democracy, rather than of their own interests. But his departure would nonetheless be welcome, for Brazil’s sake and the rest of the planet’s.

By admin